Despite early indications that county property owners could have seen as much as a 2-cent increase in their property tax rate next year, Durham County Manager Mike Ruffin isn’t proposing a such a hike. At a meeting of Durham County Commissioners yesterday, Ruffin said his staff was able to trim and arrange the county’s $499 million budget in a way that would also provide all of the requested local funding for Durham Public Schools and restore employee merit pay raises that have been frozen for the past two years. (See the budget)

The money allocated to next year’s budget is about a 4 percent increase over the previous year, but it still a “status-quo” budget that continues to demand the county operate efficiently and do much more with less, as the slow economy leads to increased demand for services, Ruffin said.

“I think the message here is one of cautious optimism,” he said. “Durham County’s economy is in better shape than many areas of the country, but the road to recovery is slow. We’re heading in the right direction, but still need to be very careful.” (Read his whole speech, PDF)

County commissioners will spend the next month hearing public comments on the budget and working with individual departments to ensure they’ll be able to operate sufficiently next year. The commissioners will also fine-tune the budget before its scheduled approval at their regular meeting June 27. Most departments, except for the Department of Social Services and the Sheriff’s Office, will see about a 2 percent cut in their budgets next year, Ruffin said.

If the board follows Ruffin’s recommendations, Durham County property owners won’t see a jump in their property tax bills next year, but there’s a good chance registered voters be deciding in November whether the county can impose one or two new sales taxes to raise money for education and public transit. (Read the county’s fact sheet)

If voters approve, a one-quarter-cent sales tax would be added to non-food and non-drug purchases beginning in April 2012, generating an estimated $9 million in its first full year in 2013. About $8.1 million of that money would go to the operating and debt-payment budgets of the Durham Public Schools.

If voters approve a 1/2-cent sales tax for public transit, the tax would be added to Durham County sales around the same time, April 2012. The first full year of collection in 2013 would garner an estimated $18 million to add public bus hours and add commuter rail between Durham and Research Triangle Park by 2018, Ruffin said. Pending cooperation from neighboring counties, the rail system could connect with other systems. The money could also be used for light rail service to UNC and UNC hospitals in Chapel Hill by 2025.

Ruffin said he believes the county should move ahead with plans for public transit regardless of whether Wake and Orange counties proceed with similar plans this year.

“Regional transit in Wake and Orange counties must come through Durham. Why not lead the way,” Ruffin told the commissioners. “We have been leading the Triangle with bold decisions for a decade,” he said, alluding to the early commitment to spend $14 million in a parking deck for American Tobacco, and in creating a 1-percent occupancy tax to generate money to pay for the Durham Performing Arts Center.

To move forward with the either the schools or transit tax, the commissioners will have public meetings this and next month, with public hearings June 13 before the commissioners must decide June 27 whether to put either, or both, on the ballot.

Ruffin pointed to two polls that show voter support for both taxes is strong. A February poll found that 66 percent of respondents said they would support a property tax increase to save teaching jobs, similar to what the county did last year. And 60 percent of the 403 respondents said they would support a half-cent sales tax for public transit, according to the study by Campaign Research + Strategy of Columbia, S.C. The Regional Transportation Alliance also released poll results in March that found 60 percent of respondents in Wake, Orange and Durham counties felt they would benefit from public transit, whether or not they use it.

The county has detailed budget documents and schedules on its website.