Council confronts county needs

The city-county relationship remains a work in progress, the Henderson City Council found Thursday afternoon.

The seven council members at the Finance and Intergovernmental Relations Committee meeting dealt with one relatively minor issue, a county agency’s request for extra money, and postponed the discussion of a major one, Vance County’s contract with the city for fire services.

In the first matter, the county Board of Elections has overrun its budget for the current fiscal year, City Manager Eric Williams said, and it has requested an additional $23,500. That’s an increase of about 18.5 percent from the original budget.

Henderson has an agreement to pay 22 percent of the Vance Board of Elections’ expenses, so the county is asking the city to add $5,170 to its original $27,997 appropriation for the board this year.

Williams had little information about why the elections board is over its budget. He said County Manager Jerry Ayscue offered to have the board explain itself. What’s certain is that the money is not part of the mandated but unexecuted conversion from punch card voting to electronic machines.

City Council member Elissa Yount noted that the city’s contribution to the elections board was only about $17,000 five years ago, and now the total will be more than $33,000. She’d like to know why the operations have become so much more expensive.

In a phone interview Friday, Elections Director Faye Gill said the budget overrun simply reflects the rising cost of holding elections. She noted that Vance voters had three elections this fiscal year — a primary, a primary runoff and the general election — and said she had to hire extra office staff.

One-stop early voting also increased the burden on the elections staff, both because of heavy early turnout and because the county mandated two additional one-stop polling places, neither of them inside the city.

Council member John Wester raised questions about how the 22 percent figure arose and whether other municipalities in North Carolina make comparable contributions to county election expenses.

That 22 percent contribution dates to before Gill took over the elections office four years ago, so she does not know its origin.

So Williams will request that the Board of Elections attend a FAIR Committee meeting to answer the council’s questions. The committee took no other action on the budget request.

The committee also did nothing about the administration of the Fire Department.

Fire Chief Danny Wilkerson sat through the meeting in anticipation of a discussion about whether the city will unfreeze the position of assistant chief.

“The chief and I are not necessarily on the same wavelength” about the need for an assistant chief, Williams said.

Human Resources Committee Chairman Mike Rainey said he will push for filling the assistant chief’s position in fiscal 2006.

Wilkerson said he needs someone in the job, which was vacated by retirement June 1, and it is part of the city’s fire services contract with the county. Under that deal, Wilkerson and his city fire administration run the county department.

The city and county governments have bickered for two years about the fire contract and the arrangements for the chief and for ambulances. The disagreements have led the county and city to operate under interim agreements, and the current arrangement expires March 31.

Wilkerson wants the City Council to decide what it’s willing to fund before the current nine-month deal ends, and Williams said he agrees that there is some urgency.

“Jerry Tucker called me today,” Wilkerson said about the county finance director and the need for a decision.

The fire chief was ready to speak to the committee, but the committee wasn’t ready for him.

“Chief, do you think we’re kind of brushing over you or something?” council member Mary Emma Evans said as the committee meeting was breaking up.

“Yes, ma’am,” the chief said.

Wilkerson wanted to know whether the lack of an agreement by March 31 would mean the end of the city-county fire arrangement for good. Williams said March 31 is not a drop-dead date, and he noted that although the county has not budgeted for the city service for the final three months of the fiscal year ending June 30, the county does have money it can use for that purpose.

Williams said he’ll schedule another FAIR Committee meeting to take up the Fire Department issue and a staffing issue in the Recreation Department.

“It’s a very complicated situation,” Wester said of the city-county fire arrangement. “It’s got a lot of history attached to it.”