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City wrangles with funds

Councilman Doug Mercer believes Beaufort County should provide funding to the city to help pay for recreation programs that use city facilities and in which county residents who are not city residents participate.

The issue is one the city and county have faced for years. It surfaced again during the Washington City Council’s meeting Tuesday.

“Now, will you grab hold of the arms of your chair because I’m going to upset you tremendously,” Mercer told Mayor Archie Jennings during that meeting. “Gentlemen, year before last, the county was providing the city with about $15,000 for recreational activities. Last year, they cut that $15,000 out. In this year’s county budget, there is no allocation for the City of Washington for recreational activities.”

Mercer said the county is providing funding for recreational activities provided by other municipalities in the county. That funding ranges from $10,000 for Belhaven to $1,500 for Washington Park, with Aurora, Bath and Chocowinity earmarked to receive amounts between.

“And yet the City of Washington has got the largest recreational program in the county and is getting no support whatsoever from the county,” Mercer said. “Now, I think we need to go to the county and tell them, ‘If you don’t give us money, county citizens are not going to be allowed to play in the city (recreation) programs. Period. Unless they pay their way.’”

Mercer continued: “I agree with you. I don’t think any child should not be allowed to play ball, but at the same time, it’s not proper for the citizens of Washington to pay for county residents to play in the city when the county is participating in no way whatsoever.”

Jennings supports the Let the Kids Play Free initiative, which is about making the cost of playing youth sports more affordable, with the ultimate goal of children being able to play sports at no cost to them. The mayor voiced his views on the matter.

“I don’t disagree with the general premise, but we have been all over the map in trying to deal with that equitably. There are all kinds of problems about people owning businesses in town, but living outside of town. People owning property (in town) and paying taxes in town, but living actually out of town. People who live in town but don’t pay taxes. So, it’s really difficult to draw that line around that. The second is if we were to go to the commissioners and say that, which we have done before, by the way, they will say this: ‘Fine. Charge them a fee.’ That’s what they say at the county. … I think it’s wrong to lever the young people in Beaufort County — and the city’s in the county, too, by the way — to lever the children of Beaufort County to try to make a point with the county commissioners over $15,000.”

Mercer replied, “It’s not the $15,000, mayor. The $15,000 is just a small fraction of what the recreational programs are costing us.”

Jennings responded, “Well, wait a minute. You’re making a valid point, but I want to make sure I’m clear. So, if we went to the county, and the county said, ‘You’re right. That’s not fair. We’ll give you $5,000.’ Would that be sufficient?”

Mercer said, “No, sir.”

“OK. Then there is a number?” Jennings said.

“In my opinion, if they can give Belhaven, a town of 3,000 people, $10,000, they should be able to give us $25,000 — at least,” Mercer said.

“It’s not the $15,000, but it’s the $25,000,” Jennings said.

“It’s a contribution that is comparable to what they are giving the rest of the county,” Mercer said.

“Well, I tell you we would just essentially be playing out history again. We’ve been down this road,” Jennings said. “To me, we’ve never been on a higher ground than we are right now, which is: county commissioners, if you want to play fast and loose with young people in this county, that’s your business. But we’re going to do the right thing by those same young people, and we’re going to say if you live on one side of the city limits, come on. If you live on the other side of the city limits, you come on, too.”

Mercer also said the county’s contribution to the city-run Brown Library is negligible considering how many county residents who do not live in the city use the library’s services.

“The county says, ‘We give you $7,800 (annually).’ You know where that $7,800 goes?” Mercer asked.

“Back to the county,” said Jennings.

“It goes back to the regional library,” Mercer said. “So, in essence, the county is putting nothing into our library system.”

Mercer said it’s time for city officials to act on the matter.

“A group of men or a group of individuals sitting at this dais have got to make the decision that we are not going to continue to support the participation of the county residents at no cost. We cannot continue to do business that way,” Mercer said.

Later in the discussion, Jennings said, “My point is there is a number. I just don’t want to chase that number, but if the rest of the council wants to draw a line in the sand, again, understand that we’ve done that before, I don’t think that’s the way to skin that cat. I think the way to skin that cat is for the manager and the county manager and some subset of this group, or the whole group, meeting jointly with that group (commissioners) to say, ‘Hey, we’ve got to create some equity.’ Not just on that case, but all the others.”

Jennings said he agrees with Mercer concerning the library and other city services that county residents who don’t live in the city use but pay little, if anything, for using.

“I don’t disagree with you on the library and several other places where we basically foot the whole tab or we have a disproportional tab (when compared) to the county. Those examples exist,” the mayor said.

Mercer said he wants discussions on these matters to occur before the council begins budget deliberations next year.

“If we don’t do something between now and then, I’m going to sit right here and make the same statements again next year,” Mercer said.

About Mike Voss

Mike Voss is the contributing editor at the Washington Daily News. He has a daughter and four grandchildren. Except for nearly six years he worked at the Free Lance-Star in Fredericksburg, Va., in the early to mid-1990s, he has been at the Daily News since April 1986.
Journalism awards:
• Pulitzer Prize for Meritorious Public Service, 1990.
• Society of Professional Journalists: Sigma Delta Chi Award, Bronze Medallion.
• Associated Press Managing Editors’ Public Service Award.
• Investigative Reporters & Editors’ Award.
• North Carolina Press Association, First Place, Public Service Award, 1989.
• North Carolina Press Association, Second Place, Investigative Reporting, 1990.
All those were for the articles he and Betty Gray wrote about the city’s contaminated water system in 1989-1990.
• North Carolina Press Association, First Place, Investigative Reporting, 1991.
• North Carolina Press Association, Third Place, General News Reporting, 2005.
• North Carolina Press Association, Second Place, Lighter Columns, 2006.
Recently learned he will receive another award.
• North Carolina Press Association, First Place, Lighter Columns, 2010.
4. Lectured at or served on seminar panels at journalism schools at UNC-Chapel Hill, University of Maryland, Columbia University, Mary Washington University and Francis Marion University.

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