Council rejects 12.5% reduction of joint programs

City Council 05-29-07
City Council members (from left) Ranger Wilkerson, Bobby Gupton, and Lynn Harper listen to public comments regarding possible reductions by the City of jointly funded City-County programs.

In a four to three vote, the Henderson City Council rejected a proposed 12.5% reduction in funding of joint City-County programs.

Henderson Mayor Clem Seifert was not present at the regular Council meeting. The meeting was held on Tuesday because of the Memorial Day holiday. In Seifert’s absence, the meeting was conducted by Mayor Pro Tem Ranger Wilkerson.

City Council 05-29-07
Mayor Pro Tem Ranger Wilkerson

Before the meeting, Home in Hendersonwas informed by Henderson City Manager Jerry Moss that Seifert would be late and that Wilkerson would preside until he arrived.

Home in Henderson left the meeting when the Council went into closed session at approximately 9:20 p.m. Seifert had not arrived at that time.

Wilkerson attempted to vote for the reduction along with members Bobby Gupton, Lynn Harper, and Elissa Yount. However, his vote was not recorded. The Mayor or Mayor Pro Tem cannot cast a vote except in the case of a tie among members of the Council, a point of order which was pointed out by Yount and confirmed by City Attorney John Zollicoffer.

Members Bernard Alston, Lonnie Davis, Mary Emma Evans, and Garry Daeke voted against the 12.5% reduction.

City Council 05-29-07
City Council members (from left) Bernard Alston and Mary Emma Evans

Jointy funded programs include the H. Leslie Perry Memorial Library, the Recreation Department, the 911 Call Center, and the Aquatics Center.

According to City Attorney John Zollicoffer, the vote is not binding upon the Council, as it precedes a public hearing on the final budget as well as a vote on the final budget itself.

Public turnout was high at last night’s meeting, perhaps in part due to an email circulated earlier in the day from Jean Palamar, a library trustee, calling on concerned citizens to attend the City Council meeting and voice concerns regarding potential library funding reduction.

A total of nine Henderson residents spoke to the Council regarding their concerns over the proposed funding reduction.

Henderson resident Richard C. Palamar told the Council that the proposed funding cuts would lead to “government chaos”. He characterized the evolution of the funding reduction plan without a dialogue with the City’s funding partner [Vance County] as “irresponsible”.

Palamar compared the City’s proposed action to that of a husband phasing out support of his family.

The local businessman asked the Council what the County Commission would do. He said that they would not support the Council’s “dictum”, and that the action would impact Henderson’s reputation.

Palamar argued that the City had accepted funds for the programs in question, and that the federal government would notice the reduction and that it would affect future funding.

“Don’t play Russian roulette with these critical government programs,” Palamar said, calling for a dialogue with the County.

City Council 05-29-07
Sam Watkins

Sam Waktins, speaking as a “concerned citizen” argued to the Council that people are saying that “we can’t be trusted to do what we say we’re going to do”.

Watkins argued that the library is an investment in our people and that Henderson citizens “stepped up”. He said that public/private partnerships are the only hope for the community.

“This is what they want to see in Washington,” Watkins said.

The local businessman and community leader argued that the City has “a written and moral obligation” to finish the programs.

Responding to Gupton’s oft-made argument that City taxpayers are over-burdened when it comes to paying for jointly-funded programs, Watkins claimed that only 20% of the City’s income comes from ad valorum taxes.

“Sales tax drives the engine,” Watkins said.

Regarding the Embassy Square project, Watkins claimied that the federal government liked what it saw and expected the City to “fulfill its end of the bargain”.

Watkins claimed that the City coerced the County into coming into the project, stating that the operating expenses for the new library were “no surprise”.

Watkins went on to claim that the Council has lobbied representatives not to give money to the library.

“Leverage never works,” Watkins said, characterizing the City’s move as an attempt to force the County’s hand.

City Council 05-29-07
Alicia Stevenson

Resident Alicia Stevenson stated to the Council that the state may decrease funding if local funds are decreased.

The certified public librarian also said that the community could lose access to on-line databases such as NC Live.

Stevenson said that the Council “will be pulling a dark shroud around our city”.

City Council 05-29-07
The Reverend Donald Lowery

The Reverend Donald Lowery of the Church of the Holy Innocents prefaced his remarks by citing his experience in working with children and his pleasure in serving a multi-racial and multi-cultural congregation.

Lowery stated that the library and the Recreation Department are essential, and that reading is fundamental to the growth of every child.

“Our library is a wonderful resource,” he said. “It is a state of the art facility.”

Lowery noted that the library is in “bicycling distance” of a significant number of Henderson youth. He also noted that the hours have been “truncated” and that the staff is inadequate.

The reverend also stated that the library is also important for adults and can lead to employment opportunities.

“We need visionary leadership,” Lowery told the Council. “Please show vision.”

Lowery said that he understood that the Recreation Department began as a City program and that the County was convinced to become a partner.

Citing the Biblical story of the Exodus, Lowery asked the Council, “Will you lead us forward…or will you become our Back to Egypt Committee?”

Tem Blackburn spoke on behalf of the Trustees of the H. Leslie Perry Memorial Library.

He started his remarks by asking the City to restore library funding so that the facility can resume 61 hours per week of operation.

Blackburn argued that the 12.5% reduction would fall disproportionately on the library by affecting state aid. He said because the cuts were unequal, affecting only jointly funded programs, the library could lose all funding and could be taken below 40 hours per week.

Blackburn claimed that below that level, the staff could not be maintained.

“We could close the library altogether,” Blackburn said.

The library advocate said that unlike other jointly funded programs, the library disproportionately benefits people in the City, and it was intended to do so. He said that it was located near people with the most critical need for its resources.

Blackburn characterized the City’s decision as “historic”. He said it could determine the fate of the library and the welfare of many citizens.

“You see before you the most remarkable thing that has been done in Henderson in 100 years,” Blackburn said.

City Council 05-29-07
The Reverend Brenda Peace

Brenda Peace, the pastor of Greater Little Zion Church in Flint Hill, told the Council that youth would be hurt by cuts to the Recreation Department.

Peace stated that access to structured activities helps reading and overall academic performance.

Citing Clean Up Henderson, Peace asked, “Isn’t Rec for youth just as important?”

City Council 05-29-07
Geraldine Champion

Henderson resident Geraldine Champion told the Council that she sees the City as being run by a “dictatorship”. She said that when the City recinds funding for the library and the Recreation Department that some will end up in juvenile court.

Champion said that because of the library that some children have access to computers and books that they may not otherwise have until they go to school.

City Council 05-29-07
Patricia Washburn

Patricia Washburn, a Henderson resident and employee of the Census Bureau, noted that a question on a Census survey is “How much have you spent on books in the past month?” She stated that few in Vance County answer with a dollar amount.

Washburn concluded that books are only available to many residents in the library.

She told the Council that it had made a committment and to please carry it out.

City Council 05-29-07
Gwendolyn Stewart-Wheeler

Lifelong Henderson resident Gwendolyn Stewart-Wheeler told the Council that as a child the library was a haven for her. She said that as a student at Northern Vance High School, NC Live offered information she could not get elsewhere.

“I don’t want to see children exploring streets instead of books,” Stewart-Wheeler told the Council.

After the round of public comments, Harper reported on behalf of the FAIR (Finance and Intergovernmental Relations) Committee that it had agreed to recommend Moss’ recommendation of a 12.5% reduction in jointly funded programs to the Council.

After expressing thanks to the audience for their comments, Harper moved that a meeting be set with County Commissioners to discuss the 12.5% reduction.

Evans asked Harper for an explanation of her statement to follow Moss’ recommendation.

Harper restated her committee’s recommendation to follow the City Manager’s plan to reduce funding of jointly funded programs by 12.5%.

Evans expressed incredulity that the recommendation would not be reconsidered in light of the evening’s public comments.

Harper responded that she was not at liberty to change her committee’s recommendation.

The Council then debated whether or not to revisit the issue before or after meeting with the County. Harper suggested discussing the item immediately, stating a need to have a position going into the meeting.

Evans said, “I don’t want to go back into Egypt,” referring to earlier remarks by Lowery.

“I think we need to rethink our priorities,” Evans suggested.

Wilkerson suggested taking up the item at a FAIR Committee budget meeting scheduled for May 30 at 4:30 p.m.

Gupton claimed that the FAIR Committee had decided to bring 12.5% decrease to the Council for a vote. He stated that that vote should procede “in the interest of time”.

Alston disagreed with Gupton, stating that the vote was to be on having a discussion with the County on the issue. He objected to the “marriage” of the funding reduction issue and the meeting issue in the same motion.

After a great deal of back and forth, it was eventually agreed that the motion made by Harper would be to have a meeting with the County to discuss jointed funded programs as soon as possible. This motion passed with Gupton opposed.

Harper then made the motion that resulted in the Council’s tentative rejection of the joint program budget cut. It was seconded by Gupton.