Selma has nixed exploring whether it could save money by merging services with Smithfield.
Leaders of the two towns had been scheduled to hold a joint meeting on Monday. But in a 3-2 vote on Tuesday, the Selma Town Council barred its members from even mentioning the idea of merging services if they attended the meeting.
Selma Mayor Cheryl Oliver, who worked for months to arrange the gathering, called the decision unfortunate. The meeting, she said, was intended as a brainstorming session where people could introduce bold ideas and see what kind of response they got. In that context, Oliver said it did not make sense to take any options off of the table ahead of time.
“It’s not like that meeting was to be the decision-making meeting. … We just needed a first discussion,” Oliver said Wednesday in a phone interview. “And instead of just voicing their views on (departmental mergers) when we had the meeting, they’ve chosen in advance to cut off any discussion of it.”
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Oliver said preliminary talks had focused on possibly merging the towns’ fire departments because fire service is relatively expensive. The towns already have mutual aid agreements, and Smithfield knew its fire chief planned to retire July 1. On March 16, the Smithfield council’s service-consolidation subcommittee held its first meeting, and the discussion focused on fire.
Despite the new restrictions on the conversation, Oliver said she would still like to meet with Smithfield to discuss other ways of saving money together.
But in light of the Selma vote, Smithfield Mayor John Lampe said Thursday that the two towns had nothing left to talk about, and he called off the meeting.
The talk on Monday would have focused on whether the towns wanted to study the benefits of merging services, Lampe said. With the conversation having not even gotten that far, Lampe said he did not understand what Selma had found to oppose.
“They’ve effectively said they’re not going to have a conversation about having the conversation,” Lampe said. “Since they have voted not to even discuss the idea on any terms, or research the idea on any terms, I’m going to drop it on my side.”
Based on his own rough, back-of-the-envelope calculations, Lampe said he estimated merging various town services would save every household in Selma $200 to $300 a year in taxes.
At the Selma council meeting, the most passionate opposition came from Councilmen Tommy Holmes and William Overby.
Before the town councils meet to discuss departmental mergers, Holmes said, the town managers from Smithfield and Selma should meet and look for ways to save money by placing joint orders for items both towns need. In his motion, however, Holmes did not make it a requirement that the managers meet before the councils.
“You can meet all you want to, but do not discuss merger or consolidation of no departments,” Holmes said to clarify his motion after it passed.
Overby said he has felt left out of the loop concerning the talks, adding that he had not been made aware of draft reports on fire and police consolidation as they became available.
“This council here hasn’t been told nothing,” he said. “I haven’t been told nothing, and Smithfield knows everything.”
Councilwoman Jackie Lacy cast the third vote to restrict the conversation, but she did not speak during the discussion. In fact, other council members weren’t sure Lacy had understood the motion, and it took a few minutes to determine her true intention.
Councilman Eric Sellers took part in the meeting over the phone, and he joined Oliver in voting for a wide-open dialogue with Smithfield. As elected officials, Selma leaders have a duty to determine whether merging departments could save taxpayers money, he said.
“For us to not sit down and even talk to each other just seems like a disservice to the people we serve,” Sellers said. “We need to open our minds; there shouldn’t be any animosity or you-versus-me kind of scenarios.”
On the topic of joint purchasing, Smithfield Town Manager Paul Sabiston said Wednesday that the two towns have done so in the past with limited success. Bulk ordering could lower the price of some items, such as telephone poles, he said. But prices on other orders, particularly ones placed through state contracts, often do not change based on quantity, he said.
“But I’m sure there’s some areas where we could buy some things together,” Sabiston said.