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Council OKs $50K for homeless shelter

Horton Sanderlin

Darius Horton

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By Jon Hawley
Staff Writer

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Elizabeth City City Council voted 5-4 this week to set aside $50,000 in next year’s budget to help the homeless, but where the money will come from and who will receive it remains to be determined.

During Monday’s council meeting, Councilor Darius Horton said he had spoken with nonprofit agencies that would be interested in reopening the city’s homeless shelter at 709 Herrington Road — provided they had sustainable funding to do so. Horton asked fellow councilors to earmark $50,000 for homeless shelter operations.

Voting for Horton’s motion were Councilors Gabriel Adkins, Anita Hummer and Johnnie Walton. Voting against it were Councilors Jeannie Young, Billy Caudle, Kem Spence and Rickey King. Mayor Bettie Parker cast a tie-breaking vote in favor of Horton’s motion to set aside $50,000 for homeless shelter operations.

Explaining her decision, Parker said she was voting with her heart.

“I am very sensitive toward the homelessness problem, and I do know those who have been homeless,” Parker said. “I’m going to vote my conscience and I’m going to vote my heart.”

The city-owned homeless shelter at 709 Herrington Road closed in February following a bedbug infestation and did not reopen. Visions of Hope, the group that had operated it since late 2014, has disbanded, according to city staff. At council’s direction, the city is advertising now for another group to reopen the shelter.

Horton acknowledged the city provided Visions of Hope some support over the years, including grants to help with utility bills. But he claimed it wasn’t enough, based on conversations he had with nonprofits. The city needs to offer more funding to truly help the city’s homeless, he said.

“We do have a homeless problem; they have nowhere to go,” Horton said, noting the only local shelter now is for domestic violence victims. “Our city staff has reported to us that there is lack of funding to support these type of programs.”

He continued, “we need a group that can run this program — not only run the house, but be instrumental in rehabilitating these people.”

Horton called for the city to set aside $50,000 in the 2018-19 city budget for supporting the homeless shelter. Council is slated to approve that budget on June 25 so the spending plan can take effect July 1. That leaves the city with just two weeks to find the money.

That caused concerns for several councilors and City Manager Rich Olson

“The budget is balanced, so what are you going to cut for $50,000?” Olson asked Horton.

Horton didn’t offer recommendations, instead saying he wanted Olson to present options to councilors at their finance committee meeting next week.

Caudle said the city could support a homeless shelter operator through Community Support Grants — a program offering $30,000 in funding, usually split among numerous nonprofits — or through amending the budget after July 1.

Young, Spence and King shared that sentiment, with Spence arguing the city should not change its budget until it has a solid proposal from a shelter operator. The city should not make cuts only to learn those cuts aren’t needed, he said.

King agreed helping the homeless is a concern, commenting he’s seen an apparent homeless woman often on Ehringhaus Street. However, he argued for amending the budget later, after a shelter operator steps forward.

“I totally disagree with all of y’all,” Horton responded. He said it was “hypocritical” to say there’s a homeless problem, but not commit to providing funding to address it.

Young disagreed, saying, “I don’t feel like I’m hypocritical for wanting to start the process the right way.”

Adkins agreed homelessness is a problem, and said setting aside $50,000 for homelessness was not committing to how it will be spent.

Walton also tried to suggest ways the city might find the money, including using savings tied to the city’s upcoming utility billing conversion.

Though the council chose a cheaper option for its utility billing conversion than Olson budgeted, Olson stressed Monday that council cannot tap its utility funds for a homeless shelter. Monies for the shelter must be paid for out of the city’s general fund, which is supported largely by property and sales taxes and covers various city services, including public safety, parks and recreation, and planning and inspections.

Walton also suggested the city could delay passing its budget past July 1. Notably, he asked the question of Assistant City Manager Angela Cole rather than Olson.

Cole responded the council could pass an interim budget.

Olson said during a follow-up interview on Tuesday, however, that the state Local Government Commission narrowly defines what local governments can pass “interim” budgets for, and a small expense — relative to an overall budget — is not a reason to pass one. He also said passing a late budget can lead to an audit finding.

Olson pointed out Monday that the city’s current request for proposals seeking a shelter operator specifically states the city won’t provide funds for a homeless shelter. That solicitation will need to be modified and possibly re-advertised, he said.

Horton said the council didn’t approve language about no funds being provided. Olson said the wording had carried over from previous advertisements for a shelter operator.

Olson said Tuesday that he will not be modifying the RFP for now.

In a followup interview Tuesday, Horton declined to name the nonprofits he’s spoken with, but said he’s spoken with three in Virginia and one in Elizabeth City. He said he wants an experienced shelter operator to take over the city-owned facility, and that’s why he’s leaning toward a nonprofit in Virginia.

Horton also said he expected any shelter operator to provide complete transparency in how it spends city dollars.

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