City, county still split on library

Henderson and Vance County have some issues to work out, as seems to be the case every year around budget time.

In the big picture, the two governments are probably long overdue for a top-to-bottom assessment of their relationship and their responsibilities — covering everything from how the costs of the 911 and elections offices are split, to how well the county provides such services as tax collection and building inspection, to how fair is a formula for dividing alcohol revenues that dates back 70 years to the end of Prohibition and doesn’t reflect innovations such as the city’s allowance of mixed-drink sales.

Two perennial parts of the city-county irritation list came up for brief discussions at Monday night’s City Council meeting: the library and the fire services contract.

The city and county traditionally provide equal funding to the H. Leslie Perry Memorial Library. City Manager Eric Williams annually chafes at that arrangement, arguing that it’s a county library and that Henderson goes beyond what should be expected of it.

On the city’s side of the argument is a referendum from 1951 in which Hendersonians agreed to put 3 cents of the property tax toward the library and no more. There’s also the fact that all Hendersonians are Vance County residents and therefore pay a part of the county contribution as well as the city contribution.

On the county’s side are more qualitative arguments. Library trustee Tem Blackburn, for example, argued at the city’s budget public hearing June 6 that the city has always been the force driving the county and, in fact, provided the push to create the county. There’s also the fact that the city, without consulting the county, brought the library into the Embassy Square project and agreed to build the library a new home that the city will own by itself.

Williams has noted this spring that the city paid more than the county for two consecutive years this decade, and he has argued that it’s only fair for the county to square things by paying more this year.

He is preparing a letter to that effect to County Manager Jerry Ayscue and library director Jeanne Fox but did not have it ready for the council Monday night. Williams said the letter will explain the reasoning for the city’s library budget of $277,000, an increase of $27,000 from the current fiscal year and a boost of $24,000 from his initial proposal for the fiscal year that starts Friday.

The original $253,000 was based on the amount 3 cents of the property tax would produce, roughly $205,000, plus the city’s share of two months of increased library operational expenses in the Embassy Square location.

The county enacted a budget with $300,000 for the library, up from $50,000 this year and also based on two months in the new building. Williams argues that the $23,000 difference offsets what the city overpaid compared with the county in recent years. But Ayscue hinted when the county commissioners passed the Vance budget that the county might lower its library contribution to match the city’s.

Mayor Clem Seifert asked Williams on Monday whether the county has agreed to the unbalanced contributions for fiscal 2005-06.

“The county would very much desire to maintain the traditional arrangement,” Williams said. “Nothing requires that we adhere to the current arrangement except tradition.”

Seifert said a letter won’t suffice; instead, the city and county will need to hold an intergovernmental meeting to hash out responsibility for the library.

Henderson and Vance have held a few such meetings in the past couple of years regarding the fire services contract between them. Vance pays Henderson for the administration services of Fire Chief Danny Wilkerson, his assistant chief, his secretary and a training officer.

That contract has run into a couple of problems in recent years: a dispute over the continuing need for the ambulance agreement between the two governments and the fact that the city went almost a year without filling the assistant chief position the county was paying for.

For now, the question is money. The county balanced its books in part by funding the fire services contract for only 10 months in the new fiscal year, while the city is counting on the full 12 months of revenue.

On Monday, Seifert asked Williams whether that potential hole of tens of thousands of dollars still exists in the city budget. Williams said it does.