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Council nixes bus purchase for police

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Elizabeth City City Council has nixed the idea of buying this bus from the Camden Sheriff's office for use as a mobile command center for the Elizabeth City Police Department. Council voted 5-4 Monday night against the purchase.

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By Jon Hawley
Staff Writer

Wednesday, April 24, 2019

Elizabeth City City Council narrowly voted Monday night not to buy the Camden County Sheriff's Office mobile command center bus and reuse it for the city's first responders.

Mayor Bettie Parker broke a 4-4 tie, agreeing with councilors and City Manager Rich Olson who had said the city had more pressing expenses than purchasing the used bus and retrofitting it for the Elizabeth City Police Department’s use. The city had estimated the bus’s total costs at more than $110,000.

Voting in favor of the purchase were Councilors Rickey King, Kem Spence, Jeannie Young and Johnnie Walton. Voting against the purchase besides Parker were Councilors Anita Hummer, Darius Horton, Billy Caudle and Gabriel Adkins.

Camden Sheriff Kevin Jones offered the mobile command center to the city several weeks ago, asking $80,000 for the 1996 diesel bus, and saying he’d give the city an old ambulance as well. Jones explained the Camden Sheriff's Office has little use for the bus, and selling it could help his department buy two new patrol vehicles.

The mobile command center is in good shape, despite its age, but it would need repainting and refitting with various electronics, the city police department reported earlier this month. If the city had purchased it, however, the ECPD recommended spending another $34,000 to put it into service.

Young and King had strongly pushed for the purchase, but Olson and police Chief Eddie Buffaloe did not describe it as an urgent need. They instead emphasized the city spending money in next year’s budget on raises for police — a factor in the 4-cent property tax increase proposed in next year's budget — and to start replacing officers' tasers.

Caudle and Walton voiced concerns about the mobile command center’s cost during council's April 8 meeting, leading councilors to direct Olson to go back to Jones and negotiate a lower price.

On Monday, Olson reported Jones held firm at his $80,000 asking price, and that the Camden sheriff told him there's another interested buyer for the bus.

That prompted King to motion the city move forward with the bus’s purchase. In seconding King’s motion, Spence said he believes that police vacancies in this year's city budget had generated enough savings to pay for the bus, and the costs to retrofit it were manageable.

Young similarly said she believed that, with lapsed officer salaries, the city could buy the bus without affecting next year's budget.

Walton commented he had a “change of mind” about the bus, and, echoing Spence and Young, said the city was planning to use “the old pot of money that's already there” for the purchase.

Hummer and Horton questioned Olson on how much salary savings was available, and if it could entirely cover the bus’s expense.

Olson said he couldn't answer that question with certainty on Monday. The current budget year doesn't end until June 30, so salary savings — and overall savings in the general fund — are speculative. He added in an email on Tuesday that “we are still trying to determine if there would be any salary savings,” and “it will take me several days to work through the numbers.”

Horton asked if not spending salary savings on the bus could help next year's budget. Olson said yes, though he cautioned such savings shouldn't be counted on indefinitely.

Explaining that lapsed salaries, like other unspent money, builds up the city's reserves, Olson said City Council could authorize him to tap more of the city’s reserves to “soften the blow,” or reduce, the proposed tax increase. However, he called that a “Band-Aid” to the long-term problem of expenses being higher than revenues.

Caudle said he opposed the bus’s purchase as both expensive and unnecessary. The bus is more than 20 years old, and he argued it would see very little use, based on how often the Pasquotank-Camden Emergency Management mobile command center is used. He said the bus is used primarily for non-emergencies, such as for supervising the N.C. Potato Festival and other public events.

Caudle continued it was a “hard pill” to swallow that the city would buy something “not needed,” and then consider a 4-cent property tax increase for next budget year, which will start July 1.

After extended debate, King and Spence “called for the question,” invoking a council procedure to end debate and force a vote on the matter. That motion passed 6-2, with Horton and Hummer voting in opposition.

After councilors deadlocked on purchasing the bus, Parker cited the city's tough budget for next year, and Olson's position that the bus wasn't a must-have item, in her vote to break the tie against the purchase.

“From that explanation, I started thinking about how tough this budget is, and we are already thinking about raising taxes,” Parker said, adding the city hasn't had “crisis use” for the current mobile command center. Were the city not in a “budget crunch,” she might vote differently, she also noted.

Following the vote, Hummer and Horton explained they opposed the purchase because they wanted more budget information and weren't prepared to vote on the bus’s purchase Monday night.

Jones could not be reached for comment Tuesday, so it's unclear whether he will sell the bus before councilors' next meeting.

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