‘Gentlemen’s agreement’ ends

Published 9:35 am Tuesday, September 17, 2013

GATESVILLE – It began as ‘gentlemen’s agreement’, but now it’s become a case of ‘show me the money’.

Or maybe not.

Gates County’s Board of Commissioners unanimously decided to follow up on County Manager Jon Mendenhall’s recommendation that the county not pay Pasquotank County to provide space for Gates’ public defender and district attorney personnel to use the facilities of the Pasquotank County Courthouse, something that drew the ire of the Pasquotank Board of Commissioners.

This despite Currituck and Chowan counties not paying rent for the space either.

As one of seven counties in the state’s 1st Judicial District: also including Chowan, Perquimans, Pasquotank, Camden, Currituck, and Dare, Gates County joined the other six in paying rent to Pasquotank for public defenders assigned to their counties to use the facilities at the Pasquotank County Courthouse.

While nothing was ever drawn up to make the arrangement formal, the practice actually began years ago at the old Colonial Office Building in Edenton, which is privately owned, with each county paying $200 per session of Criminal Superior Court.

Since moving to the new Pasquotank Public Safety Building a few years ago, the arrangement now calls for the assessment to be calculated on $12 per square foot plus a special maintenance formula devised by Pasquotank County.

Gates County’s share came to over $14,000 per year.

Back in the spring, Gates County officials said they would pay the almost $15,000 assessment, but by the end of summer had changed their minds.

Meanwhile, in an article in the Elizabeth City “Daily Advance”, Currituck and Chowan claimed their budgets were too tight to spend tax dollars on optional expenses and thus cancelled their payments earlier in the year.  The amounts were believed to be $17,000 from Chowan and $28,000 from Currituck.

Prior to their vote at their Wednesday meeting the board heard public citizen comments from Sunbury resident Earl Rountree, who recounted his attendance at the Pasquotank County Commissioners’ meeting the night before.

“Last night (Pasquotank County Commissioner) Gary White was just plain out mad, and the bottom line is they (Pasquotank County) want everything,” Rountree said.

“And what I can’t understand is why a county as wealthy as Pasquotank should be are jumping down our throat about $15,000 that Mr. Mendenhall, and I and other county managers have discussed that we shouldn’t even have to pay to start with.”

Rountree added, “My argument with them last night was that I said put yourselves in our situation: if two other big counties pulled out, would you feel obligated to pay your money?”

Rountree went on to say, “I asked did you go to Chowan County and say they needed to pay their money?  Or did you ride over to Currituck?”

“They singled us out,” he declared.

Rountree concluded his comments, “We can’t have PasquotankCounty bullying us (to pay $15,000 dollars).”

Board chair Henry Jordan said he wasn’t knowledgeable enough on what the county should have done regarding the funds when he was approached to comment.

“I was quoted as saying that I was not against it,” said Jordan, referring his published comments. “I did say that it sounded reasonable if we’re using those services.  But once I talked with Jon (County Manager Mendenhall), I found out that we provide services for the DA office and the defender, therefore it’s like paying double.”

Jordan went on to add that he supported the County Manager’s recommendation.

“I think the decision that Jon made is a good decision,” Jordan said. “As a board I think we need to bring some closure to this.

“Unless things change,” he added, “we might not want to start paying again unless there is sufficient reason to do so.”

“The significant part for them is did the DA choose to live in Pasquotank County,” said Commissioner Jack Owens. “Suppose we requested he live in Gates County then we would provide him with office space.

“To me, they benefit from him residing in Pasquotank County,” Owens added. “If we’re providing the facilities here when they are here when they are necessary, then let’s do it on a percentage basis.”

“It’s my understanding that there’s no judicial district that requires that everybody pay into a pool,” said Commissioner Linda Hofler.

“We do provide space for the DA,” said Commissioner John Hora. “I suspect it’s only used on court dates. I think what the county manager stated was appropriate.”

“We have to support him (Mendenhall) if his recommendation is reasonable,” said Jordan, “and I think that’s what we need to do today.”

In checking to see how other counties handle such matters, the Roanoke-Chowan News-Herald contacted Hertford County Manager Loria Williams. As the office home Valerie Asbell, District Attorney for Judicial District 6B, Hertford County budgets $33,000 annually to lease Asbell’s office in Ahoskie, even though Judicial District 6B also encompasses Bertie and Northampton counties.

“Statutorily, we are required to either provide space (a county-owned building) or lease space for the DA if he or she opts to base their office in Hertford County,” Williams stated. “We are obligated to cover that cost. We do not require Bertie or Northampton to help cover that cost.”

Williams added that the new Hertford County Judicial Center, currently under construction, has space for the DA’s office. That fact will save Hertford County local government $33,000 annually.