Opinion: Time for a plan

At the very least, the City Council forum planned for Feb. 28 will launch the public phase of the city’s budget process much earlier this year, and that’s a good thing.

In the past, City Manager Eric Williams collected budget information from department heads in March and delivered a budget proposal to the City Council in May or even June, leaving no time for big policy decisions. Oxford and Granville County sometimes finished their budgets before Henderson got started.

The City Council spent each June searching for ways to make the balance budget with the smallest tax and fee increases possible, a noble goal but one that delays discussions of what the city should and should not do and exactly what personnel and equipment it needs to do that work.

In other words, the city has been in perpetual stopgap mode throughout this new millennium.

It’s like a couple who live in an apartment and agree that someday they’d like to buy a house and have children. But each time they cash a paycheck, they take that money and spend it on the things they think they need at that moment. Everything seems like a necessity, from the milk and bread to the laptop computer and the high-speed Internet access; none of it is necessarily frivolous. But because each purchase is spur-of-the-moment, based on immediate circumstances and not on the big picture of buying a house and having kids, the couple find that the years slip by without any progress toward those goals. They never save any money, and they’re thrown into a crisis (and debt) every time something goes wrong, such as the car needing a new transmission.

Henderson has similarly stumbled from crisis to crisis for years. We’ve just gotten by, with the city government responding to each problem or request without much consideration for where it fit into the big picture. City positions have been frozen and unfrozen from department to department to make the numbers balance and to address the immediate demand, not to move the city ahead.

Maybe that’s the fault of Williams, who has been in charge long enough that he should be able to look beyond the year-to-year renewal of his contract. Maybe it’s the fault of the City Council, which gives Williams his operating orders and tends to push him in eight different directions, depending on the whims and interests of each member. Maybe it’s the fault of the mayor, or the shift from Mayor Chick Young to Mayor Clem Seifert, a major change in style and substance.

In reality, we’re all to blame.

We Hendersonians weren’t prepared for the deaths of our two dominant industries, textiles and tobacco. Now we’re caught in a dangerous downward spiral of a falling tax base, declining services, rising costs and soaring taxes. No one has presented a meaningful vision for how to stop the slide.

Instead, the city has pushed ahead with capital projects that we can only hope will pay off in the long term:

* The Aycock Recreation Complex is an excellent facility, but the city needs it to serve youths who can’t get out there.

* The expansion of the regional water plant to a capacity of 20 million gallons per day is almost a necessity, but unless big new customers come online, we’ll all pay the price in the form of higher water bills (the worst case is an increase of about $40 per year, the council was told last Monday night).

* The Embassy Square police station is impressive, but it’s easily double the size (and cost) that the city needed. Meanwhile, the Police Department has frozen positions and can’t pay enough to keep the officers it has.

* The cultural side of Embassy Square could prove to be the greatest thing since sliced bread or the biggest disaster since the Titanic. We just don’t know, and we’re pouring money into it on a hope and a prayer.

Each of those facilities has been called a key to the city’s future, and all could play crucial roles. But until we have a comprehensive plan, none of them is likely to make a decisive difference.