It’s back to the drawing board for various contracts between the local city and county government.
During a special-called meeting Thursday evening, the Lincolnton City Council voted 3-1 to send several contracts, the result of months of negotiations, back to committee.
Councilman Devin Rhyne cast the lone dissenting vote after a night of heated discussion.
Assuming county officials agree to come back to the table, Councilmen Larry Mac Hovis and Carroll Heavner will try their hands at hashing out new agreements as part of the committee.
“If the committee works out a better deal, then I’ll be happy to celebrate with you,” Mayor John Gilleland said, though his, and others’, frustration was hard to hide throughout a back-and-forth debate.
Gilleland, along with City Manager Jeff Emory, were a part of the talks that culminated in the proposed agreements presented to, and now tabled by, council members.
A bundle deal of items, including regarding the sale of city water to the county and fire, emergency-dispatch and animal-control services, was a deal-breaker for a majority of the council.
“The timing is right to enter into an agreement with the county,” Gilleland stressed when starting off the meeting.
He reiterated his belief that the city must find additional water customers to help pay down the debt on its 10-million-gallon-capacity water plant. Built in the 1990s to supply textile companies, many of which are no longer in business, the plant currently is only at 30-percent capacity.
The proposed selling price of $1 per 1,000 gallons would be a step in the right direction, Gilleland has said.
However, it wasn’t so much the pricing but the “all-or-nothing” nature of the deal that sparked opposition from some council members.
Larry Mac Hovis, for instance, said he wouldn’t go along with the agreements unless they could be taken up separately.
With the county looking to significantly hike up what it charges the city for both animal-control and emergency-dispatch services, others worried what burden the increase would have on Lincolnton taxpayers.
Under a previous longstanding agreement, county officials believe the city has been underpaying for those services by more than $360,000.
Councilman Dr. John “Les” Cloninger said he didn’t believe it would be fair for city residents who already have to pay county taxes.
“I don’t think we should compromise our principles just to sell water,” he said.
The city, he said, shouldn’t have to “bow down” to the county and agree to unfair contracts. He likewise said he was not ready to vote and that more discussion was needed.
Councilman Carroll Heavner echoed his sentiments, saying he believed the contracts would lead to city taxpayers taking over the costs for the county.
Both Rhyne and Gilleland, meanwhile, emphasized that the county was going to impose the raised payment levels anyways. As such, they said, the city should at least get some benefit out of the deal by selling more water.
City Attorney T.J. Wilson noted that the county has the right to raise those costs, and, even if the city is getting “killed” on the other end of the agreements, it might as well get something out of it.
“At the end of the day, guys, it’s got to be a no-brainer,” Rhyne said.
Otherwise, he added, the only option was to provide those services themselves, a move he believes would be quite costly.
Hovis, however, questioned the accuracy of some of the figures provided by the county, suggesting that it may not be as expensive as they were making it out to be.
He referenced a survey of surrounding municipalities and counties, gathered by Chief of Police Rodney Jordan in March, that shows several examples of cities not paying any additional funds, or at least quite a bit less, for both 911 dispatch and animal control.
Hovis also said the city might want to make a list of its own for various items it could start charging the county for.
Though most of the night’s discussion revolved around the bundle deal, council members did vote to renew a separate contract allowing the county to collect taxes for the city.
They also expressed their frustration with, but took no further action on, the Lincolnton-Lincoln County Regional Airport, which most agree has been a drain on city funds.
“We haven’t got a dime out of it,” Hovis said, noting that the city has paid its share but reaps no tax money from it like the county does.
It remains to be seen what move Lincoln County officials will make concerning the contracts, which are on the Board of Commissioners’ agenda for Monday’s meeting.
“I hope what I think is a good plan doesn’t fall apart,” Gilleland said.