Cuts hit wrong target

Oct. 08, 2013 @ 07:02 PM

To suggest any comparison between any of our local governments and the train wreck that passes for governance these days in Washington would be truly unfair.

Still, we can’t help but see just a hint of the budget battle-continuing resolution-debt ceiling-Obamacare scrum in the nation’s capital and the Durham County Commissioners’ revenge cut to one agency’s budget.

The commissioners are miffed because during budget discussions last summer, the city ended its participation in financing a program that has sharply decreased a backlog of unserved arrest warrants. The city and county jointly funded the “warrant control” program, paying for additional clerks in the Durham County Sheriff’s Office to digitize into a database the piles of unserved warrants.

The program worked. As of this spring, when this fiscal year’s budgets were taking shape, the job was nearly finished. 

Problem solved, the city concluded. No need for more money – after all, City Manager Tom Bonfield and the City Council reasoned, there are lots of other demands on the city’s budget.

Sheriff Mike Andrews wanted to continue the program, morphing it into a one-stop shop for warrant information. City police didn’t see enough value in that program, and the city stuck to its no-funding guns.

In response, the commissioners lopped $84,758 out of its allocation to the jointly funded City-County Planning Department.  Monday, they reiterated that decision. Chairman Fred Foster, in the majority on the 3-2 vote, argued that “we have to be very judicious about the dollars we’re spending, and I’d rather have them in-house on things we need.”

Planning Director Steve Medlin had eased some commissioners’ worries by reallocating some duties to assure the department can continue developing a low-income housing strategy.

But job cuts still are likely, leading to objections from the Home Builders Association of Durham and Orange counties, whose leaders fear a delay in permit decisions. 

We understand Foster’s contention about needing to spend that money on other priorities – and we don’t necessarily disagree with Andrews’ contention that the program is worth funding in its altered form.

Nor do we necessarily disagree with the city’s contention that the reason for the program is over – and generally applaud the notion of sunsetting government programs when their objectives are met.

What trouble us the most is that the commissioners’ decision does suggest acting as much out of pique as priorities. 

Brenda Howerton, who voted to reverse course on the cuts Monday, said she didn’t want the planning department “in the middle” of the dispute.

We agree.  Punishing a bystander in this case seems like the wrong approach to resolving the policy dispute over the warrant-control program.