Local Politics

Durham city, county again debate merging governments

Posted June 6, 2012

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— 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.

Durham County sign Some question size of savings from joining Durham governments

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.


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  • jamesstuart Jun 8, 2012

    Lemme fix one of your statements, Mr. Ruffin: "Consolidation forces efficiencies that will never occur as long as Durham continues to be mismanaged and brought asunder by a majority congoloid population”.

  • bbqchicken Jun 7, 2012

    Combining the CityPD and the County Sheriff is not a big issue, the city would be absorbed into the sheriff's dept. It is more of a logistical problem than law. How the Sheriff's Dept operates after might be different.

  • 68_dodge_polara Jun 7, 2012

    NO! NO! NO!!!!
    This would only serve as a tax increase for those that live in the county without the city having to provide the city services. Watch out when politicians see free money it's a powerful force.

    Another reason they are pushing for this, Durham is heavily in debt because of the bonds the city voters have passed this would put those that didn't have the opportunity to vote on such bonds on the hook to pay for them as well. It's criminal.

  • mrduffin Jun 6, 2012

    Oh yeah....I live in the county and would love to pay more taxes for the same services I get now. Sounds fair to me!

  • westernwake1 Jun 6, 2012

    Yeah.... because we have already seen how well merging the Durham County and City School Systems went.

  • yankee1 Jun 6, 2012

    Ain't gonna happen anytime soon. Politicians are empire builders. Who would choose which County or City politicians, appointees and general hacks would go? Who would be willing to give up their special interest playgrounds like Sustainability, for example, to better overall Durham? NONE OF THEM!!! It would have to be a demand of the citizens and done by referendum. Look at the make up of Durham. High welfare rolls, sanctuary city by choice, high crime and homeless population. Do you think anything would change if put to a vote?

  • anonemoose Jun 6, 2012

    Yep, lets just kick this can down the road......

  • US VET Jun 6, 2012

    yES, THE NON TAXPAXING citizens of the city would love for the tax payers of the county to substizise their welfare paymentsand benifits. NO Way..