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Council puts hold on funds for homeless shelter

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By Jon Hawley
Staff Writer

Sunday, June 24, 2018

The Elizabeth City City Council agreed Thursday to delay setting aside money for a homeless shelter, rather than make difficult budget cuts to immediately free up money for it.

The council's consensus means the city isn't looking at eliminating grants for nonprofits or effectively eliminating several positions – among them the Elizabeth City Downtown Inc. director – to free up $50,000 for the shelter. At City Manager Rich Olson's recommendation, the council will instead let city staff try to find the funding over the next few months.

The council is looking to fund a shelter, because the city's former shelter operator, Visions of Hope, disbanded earlier this year. The small women's shelter at 709 Herrington Road has been closed ever since – leaving the homeless with few if any places to turn in the city.

The shelter's closure has prompted Councilor Darius Horton to urge the city find a new shelter operator. Following the council approving putting out a “request for proposals,” Horton also urged them to commit to a $50,000 earmark in the city's 2018-2019 budget for a shelter.

However, the council has essentially finalized that budget and is looking to vote on it Monday to ensure it's in effect on July 1, the start of the new fiscal year. The timing of Horton's request divided councilors in their June 11 meeting. Councilors Jeannie Young, Billy Caudle, Rickey King and Kem Spence called for funding the shelter once a new operator is found and the city has had time to find more money.

Horton sharply criticized them for that position, however, arguing it was “hypocritical” to claim to support the homeless but not find money to help them.

Councilors Johnnie Walton, Gabriel Adkins, and Anita Hummer sided with Horton, as did Mayor Bettie Parker, who cast a tie-breaking vote.

The council's vote directed Olson to try to find money for the shelter. On Thursday, he presented several places the city could cut to free up money, including: the $30,000 Community Support Grant Program, the $20,000 earmark for the Food Bank of the Albemarle, the $25,000 earmark for Arts of the Albemarle; $25,000 in funding for ECDI, about $48,000 for a new firefighter, or about $71,000 for a new information technology position.

Olson also noted that cutting the city's funding for ECDI would eliminate its director's position, effectively laying off Deborah Malenfant.

Olson said city staff could scrutinize more line items to squeeze $50,000 out of the budget, but  recommended waiting until a shelter operator is found, a process that could take several months. That would make it easier to find budget savings, and would allow the city to prorate the $50,000 based on the shelter operator reopening midway through the fiscal year. He noted the $50,000 equates to just over $4,000 a month.

Based on assurances from Olson and other councilors Thursday, Horton agreed to delay committing funds to the shelter. Councilors Young and Caudle pledged to support funds for an operator once one is found, agreeing homelessness remains a problem.

Horton has also said he wants the city to hire an experienced, professional firm. The homeless need help getting back on their feet, not just a place to stay, he's explained.

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