Durham flirts with merger

DURHAM The idea is to save operating expenses with a unified government. But the details of how it would work are still far from decided, and not everyone is on board.

Eighty five percent of the residents live in the incorporated city limits, but according to the County Attorney's Office, the county would be in charge in any merger. The larger city would go away, and the county would remain.

The county would also have the powers of a county and the powers of a city within urban services district.

Everyone agrees the changes would have to come up from the ground up starting with residents but the agreements stop there.

Durham Mayor Bill Bell says the timing is off, and that this is not the time to look at merging both governments. In the midst nationwide economic crisis he also says if they do decide to merge he is sitting this one out on the sidelines.

"This crisis is not created by Durham city and Durham County, so from my perspective, I don't see the crisis that's moving us towards merger," he offered.

Other leaders disagreed and said it is the only way to weather the financial crisis, they said Durham is in fact facing a crisis and that combining services would save it.

"We are in a crisis. To sum it up, we can't afford two governments. We simply cannot afford two governments in Durham County," said Durham City Councilman Howard Clement.

Back in 2000, a commission report on a possible merger estimated more than $40 million in savings over a ten year period.

To save money, the city and county have already merged their tax collection, inspection and planning departments as well as the 911 system. But whether the department merger adds up to significant savings is a question some city leaders are asking.

"Will it save the taxpayers of Durham County and Durham City money? Will it result in a more efficient government? Will it be able to deliver services in a more efficient way? Those are the concerns I have," said Durham City Councilman Mike Woodard.

Some services may be hard to combine like schools which are primarily funded by the county along with water and sewer provided by the city. The merger has hit two snags in years past.

"It comes down to politics usually - in terms of the makeup of the governing body and who's going to be in charge of law enforcement," explained Durham County Commissioner Ellen Reckhow.

Combining Durham police and deputies contradicts state law which requires all counties to elect a sheriff. Still, supporters say there are several communities nationwide with successful mergers.

Faced with deep deficits though, both sides have agreed to iron out their budgets first before making any decisions.

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