Program Report: County Manager Mike Ruffin

MikeRuffinWebLong time County Commissioner Ellen Reckhow introduced County Manager, Mike Ruffin who is now in his 13th year on the job. The program was advertised to be about the newly opened Durham County Courthouse Building but Mike instead conducted a little seminar in county budget economics, apparently in preparation for a property tax increase that he will be requesting for the Fiscal Year 2014 budget. As he put it, he’s going to have a lot of explaining to do.

After the meeting Mike was kind enough to give me his notes so I wouldn’t have to trust my not-so-good ears with the numbers that he shared. But the most impressive number that he shared then had nothing to do with his presentation. If, like me, you hadn’t seen Mike for a while until recently, you might have gotten that feeling that he looked familiar but you weren’t sure why. Like his approach to governing, this is a man who took the bull by the horns and lost well over 100 lbs to get to fighting weight for this budget session.

The General Fund Budget is expected to be over $348.4 M with a projected $203.4 M coming from the property tax, almost $58 M coming from the sales tax and $15.3 M coming from various service charges. Among the points Mike made is that tax revenues are growing much more slowly then they did just a few years ago while the demand for services had continued to grow at a steady pace because of the sluggish economy.  In fact, he made it clear that he has yet to see much evidence of an economic boom that he sees Brian Williams report on the evening news every night. Nevertheless, he noted, the County is in the best financial position in its history.

A good part of the presentation was about what he sees as the budget stressors: school funding, human services funding, and debt managemen
t. The debt management is largely the result of over a billion dollars of capital improvements completed over the last ten year period, including the new courthouse complex at $119M and the soon to be completed Human Services Building, which will come in at over $90M.

Perhaps the most interesting observation that he shared had to do with school funding. In a ten county comparison of “peer” counties in North Carolina, Durham is substantially higher at $3165 per student than any other county. He noted that if we could reduce that cost to the weighted average of those other counties we would need almost $40M less in tax revenues. Obviously that argues for careful planning and tight controls in the school system. But there is another factor too.

Mike may have been being kind when he noted that our education and social services costs were high because as a community we valued those things. Another hypothesis comes from the advertising advice for septic tank owners “pay me now or pay me later.” We’re now living in “later.” As we as a club get more involved in literacy programs it is clear that not only do we have a lot of poor people in Durham but some of the shortcuts of the past are now coming back to haunt us. Recall the story of Chris Williams from the Durham Literacy Center being “socially” promoted grade to grade without learning to read. We know that over 40% of our students struggle with literacy and there is only so much the schools can do without money, and strong community support. It is unlikely that anyone who has been tutoring over at YE Smith believes that the efforts there to create an elementary school model for Durham isn’t money well spent.

There was a question too about the need for the new courthouse complex. That too, may be part of the price for these same shortcuts. Let’s hope that this handsome building will facilitate more positive change.  We’ll also continue to need great leadership from Commissioners such as Ellen and managers such as Mike. Let’s hope the rumors of Mike’s retirement are just that…rumors.

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