Durham News

Durham holds city tax rate steady, sticks with Blue Cross

In its last regular meeting of the fiscal year, City Council members unanimously approved a $388 million budget for the year ahead and a “road diet” for Chapel Hill Boulevard.

Also, in a 4-3 vote, they chose to stick with Blue Cross and Blue Shield for city employees’ health insurance.

The new budget is $1.5 million more than the proposal City Manager Tom Bonfield presented in May, but the city’s property-tax rate remains at the current 59.12 cents per $100 valuation.

Much of the increase is due to a $2.8 million appropriation to finish streets and stormwater controls in two subdivisions in which the developers went bankrupt with construction incomplete. The city will recoup $1.13 million in assessments to be paid by residents over a 10-year period.

Other adjustments in the budget bring the total increase down to $1.5 million.

Staying local

On the insurance question, Bonfield said city staff and Blue Cross officials were talking over contract details up to 5:30 Monday afternoon.

The council’s vote for Blue Cross, the current employee health insurer, over a bid from Aetna came with the assumption that the city and Blue Cross can write a final agreement that protects the city against a loss.

The city’s human-resources staff had recommended an Aetna plan that projected a $6.7 million saving over Blue Cross’s bid, and a council vote was scheduled June 1. However, Blue Cross came up with revised offers, and council members put off a decision to give the staff time to analyze them.

Projections on Blue Cross’s latest offer show what Mayor Bill Bell called a “worst case” of costing slightly more than Aetna over the contract’s 33-month period, but includes a guarantee to protect the city from loss.

“Without the guarantee, I would not support it,” Bell said.

Blue Cross has about 1,000 employees in Durham and is moving its home office to Durham from Chapel Hill. Several council members said they preferred doing business with a local company over Connecticut-based Aetna.

Mayor Pro Tem Cora Cole-McFadden, and Councilman Eddie Davis had previously objected to Aetna’s history of insuring slaveowners against loss due to their slaves’ deaths, but that matter did not come up Monday.

“It is an honor to do business with a local company,” Cole-McFadden said. “Blue Cross is Durham.”

City employee emails to council members overwhelmingly favored keeping their insurance with Blue Cross.

Slimming U.S. 15-501

A decision on reconfiguring U.S. 15-501 Business, also called Chapel Hill Boulevard, also had been postponed from June 1 after some business owners said the proposed reduction from five vehicle lanes to three, with bicycle lanes and some on-street parking, would hurt their businesses.

Further investigation on such “road diets,” and a torrent of emails from supporters swayed council members who had not been sure the reconfiguring was a good idea.

“I was somewhat dubious about this change,” Councilman Eugene Brown said. “But in the last several weeks, the more I have read, the more analysis that I have done, the more studies I have seen ... and the more citizens and, yes, business owners I have spoken with, lead me to conclude this is the right way to go.”

City traffic engineers proposed the reconfiguring as a safety measure on the one-mile stretch between Chapel Hill Road and University Drive, where cars and trucks regularly go faster than the 35 mph posted limit.

The road diet will be done by painting lane stripes in the new configuration after the state DOT has the road repaved later this year or early next. Restriping the road is part of the state contract and will be done at no cost to the city.

Wise: 919-641-5895