Elkin residents found themselves in a budget slugfest with town commissioners leading up to a Monday night public hearing at Town Hall, but were thrown a temporary lifeline after commissioners opted to recess the public hearing on its 2014-2015 fiscal budget and reconsider several items at an unprecedented third budget workshop.
The public hearing will resume on June 17 following the conclusion of a budget workshop held at 5:30 p.m. Since the public hearing is in recess, no additional public notice is required.
Monday night, residents objected to what they considered would be a cut in funding for the Elkin Public Library. Library advocates learned the town will dip into a trust fund of a deceased person by removing $30,000 to offset a special appropriation request of $85,000, even after the town is recording a substantial surplus in the budget.
Library officials said using the Lillard Fund, named after James Lillard who left a significant portion of money in the 1980s to the town of Elkin for library use, is a direct message from town commissioners that future funding will not be available. Commissioners have said the town contribution to the library is disproportionate compared to funding at other facilities.
“We can’t isolate our library from the region,” Elkin Librarian Martha Smith pleaded to commissioners.
“We should increase the library budget from the town. We can get creative too from an economic development standpoint. The library is in the best location for us to expand… Right now we need your support,” said Dan Whalen, trustee of the Elkin Public Library.
“Removing the money from the Lillard Fund does not make sense… A referendum was passed by this town in 1966 authorizing you to issue a levy to support library operations,” said Carol McDowell, a library trustee.
Town Attorney Ray “Scooter” Parker said, “The town may levy a tax per $100 valuation, but that doesn’t mean the town must levy… The last levy tax was in 1975.”
“I’m the one who proposed the $30,000 removal from Lillard,” said Commissioner Skip Whitman. “How it happens and why it happens is for us to determine… We tried to send a message to the library last year when we used Lillard. We didn’t get a word from them.”
“Communication is a two-way street though,” shouted McDowell.
“You’re right. That’s why I agree on making every library board meeting from this point out. We need better communication,” said Whitman.
Residents also charged the podium to save two communications dispatchers with the Elkin Police Department whose positions would be eliminated after the town regionalizes evening emergency calls to Surry County 911 with the proposed budget. The lobby doors of the Elkin Police Department would be locked at night only bearing a sign with a phone number for residents to call a sergeant on patrol. Residents say that action puts the town at risk.
“Eliminating the night-time dispatcher positions and closing the Elkin Police Department every night from 6 p.m. is a very bad idea… You raised our taxes last year. I don’t think you heard us complain. Now you are proposing cuts to services. We are upset because we thought the purpose of a tax increase was to enable you to maintain our current level of service,” said Susan Stewart.
“This is direct advertisement of anyone who wants to come here and make a mess of things,” said Pamela Bowman.
“My dad had a stroke… He called me to his house because he’s too ill to be here himself. He said please relay that I am totally bedridden. Please keep the dispatchers. The dispatchers there make me feel safe,” said Michael Howell.
Communications dispatcher Tanya Ferguson, who’s on the chopping block, provided the most powerful testimony of the evening saying her statement was not about losing her job, but what was best for Elkin.
“You wouldn’t believe the amount of fights I’ve stopped in the parking lot late at night. If you close the doors, nobody is there for those seeking help… I’ve helped protect a woman who was being chased by a man. She raced into the lobby, which would now be closed. One time a lady got bit by a dog. We’ve been there to help by calling emergency rescue. Even at night, families use the parking lot during custody exchanges, some come inside… I get so many calls from elderly people, all night long. It’s because they’re alone. They’re scared of things. The county will not take the time to make them feel safe… Your decision to eliminate us would be a huge setback for Elkin. We’re more than just dispatchers,” said Ferguson.
The testimony received the loudest applause from residents in attendance, many who were observed wiping tears.
In an interview following the statement, Ferguson said her entire statement may have been news to commissioners who never asked her for input leading up to a decision to shut down the nighttime communications operation. “There’s so much that goes on at night. We need to stay. The people need this.”
After testimony, Ferguson and Elkin Police Department Chief Monroe Wagoner returned to police quarters. Wagoner did not provide a comment on the budget matter. Wagoner did not attend the second budget workshop, a meeting that resulted in the proposal to eliminate the evening dispatcher positions.
Some residents were concerned about the elimination of a Public Works employee and the town’s leaf and limb services. Commissioners proposed making the collection of debris more efficient by requiring residents to contact Public Works who would schedule pickup within 72 hours instead of keeping a rover-styled employee who circles the town at random hoping to find debris.
After testimony concluded, newcomer Commissioner Bob Norton said he learned plenty from its citizens during the barrage of passionate testimony.
“I think we have to go back and rethink. There are too many facts that I’ve learned. I think we owe it to the people to go back and see if we’ve made the right decision,” Norton told commissioners.
Commissioners said much of the discussion on Monday night could have been avoided if the public had attended any of the two prior public budget workshops held by the town of Elkin.
There are only four items commissioners will consider at the third budget workshop — restoring full funding of the Elkin Public Library; reconsidering a decision to punt evening 911 calls to the county and laying off two communications dispatchers; addressing leaf and limb services; and including funding to hire a structural engineer for the Rock Facade in downtown Elkin.
Elkin proposed a $4,759, 926 budget, a six-percent increase over last year. The Water Fund is expected to generate $1,167,81, a 3.9-percent increase.
The proposed budget shows the town will have a surplus of more than $200,000. The town would remove $117,000 of surplus revenue and invest in two Capital Reserve Funds earmarked for economic development projects and recreation.
It is unknown if the June 17 budget workshop will result in changes to the proposed budget. Commissioners said much will weigh on public participation at the budget workshop.
“We have to base our decisions based on information we have at the time of the workshops. If you’re not there, we don’t think anything is wrong. You have to show up at these meetings,” said Mayor Lestine Hutchens.
Anthony Gonzalez may be reached at 336-835-1513 or on Twitter @newsgonz.