Durham city, county again debate merging governments
Posted June 6, 2012
Durham, N.C. — The argument over the map in Durham has gone on for decades: Do the lines need to be blurred between the city and the county?
Durham first considered consolidating municipal and county governments in the early 1970s, but voters rejected the idea by a 2-1 margin. The issue was studied again a little over a decade ago, but opposition on various fronts scuttled the move before it could be put on the ballot.
County Manager Mike Ruffin revived the consolidation discussion again last week in laying out his budget proposal for 2012-13.
"Consolidation forces efficiencies that will never occur as long as we continue to operate independently,” Ruffin said in addressing his goal of having accountable, efficient and visionary government in Durham County.
Ruffin said Wednesday that he opposed a merger when he first arrived in Durham 12 years ago.
"This economy has forced me as a manager to look differently at the way I run and manage the organization that I've been charged with, and it's really required that I take a very different look at mergers," he said. "It makes a lot of sense as a manager and one who knows a lot about our services."
The city and county already combine several departments, such as planning and inspections, and he said a complete merger might result in a tax decrease countywide by allowing the city to collect taxes in the portion of Research Triangle Park in Durham County.
With turnover on the county Board of Commissioners, Ruffin said, it was time to explore government consolidation in Durham again, even though he would likely be retired before any merger takes effect.
"Been there. Done that," said Durham Mayor Bill Bell, who has been part of several merger discussions in the past.
Bell said any savings from consolidating governments might not be as much as expected and noted that combining the Durham Police Department and the Durham County Sheriff's Office would be difficult.
"We still have distinct services that are going to be required whether they are merged or not," he said.
No city-county consolidations have ever occurred in North Carolina, although Asheville, Charlotte and Wilmington also have explored the idea of merging with their surrounding counties, according to the School of Government at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
With almost 86 percent of Durham County's population living within Durham's city limits, Ruffin said, the move makes sense for the area.
"I think there are places we could go and learn what sense it might have made," he said, citing Louisville, Ky., and Augusta, Ga.
The Greater Durham Chamber of Commerce issued a statement last week backing the idea, saying it would save taxpayers money and would give the area a unified voice when pursuing economic development opportunities.
County Commissioners Michael Page, Pam Karriker and Ellen Reckhow all said Wednesday that it's a good time to take another look at whether a unified government in Durham can improve efficiency. Commissioner Brenda Howerton said any discussion should come after new board members are elected in November.
City Councilwoman Diane Catotti said she is open to exploring the idea but added that she believes any savings would be minimal.
Bell said consolidating governments could lead to political arguments over control and damage the good relationship the city and county now enjoy.
"I've been around politically a few years. I think I pretty much know the lay of the land, and merger, we've done it," he said.