By MARINA WATERS
Three public safety requests have been blazing a trail through multiple county commission committees as of late, but at the Wednesday, June 21, budget meeting, the fire to pass those requests was doused—for now.
Washington County Mayor Dan Eldridge asked the committee to defer additional funding requests from Washington County Volunteer Fire Departments, Washington County-Johnson City EMS and Washington County Emergency Communications District (911) until after the upcoming fiscal year’s budget is finalized.
Eldridge also said he hopes to find a source of recurring funding for these public safety requests, including the work he plans to do to provide the volunteer fire departments with additional daytime staff. To do this, Eldridge said he will be working with the County Technical Assistance Service, an organization designed to assist county governments in various fields such as fiscal administration, accounting and public works.
“I think the point of what I wanted the budget committee to understand is that while we’re all very interested in figuring out a way to improve the quality of the fire service in the county with the daytime staffing, it is a very complicated issue working within the laws,” Eldridge told the Herald & Tribune. “There’s a lot of support for it. A lot of us are very interested in getting something done with this, but there are so many moving parts, so many limitations in the state law.
“The bottom line is it’s just going to take more time. And we need the expertise of the CTAS consultants to really guide us through this.”
Meanwhile, Eldridge is looking to aid EMS’ additional funding request through the revenue they could receive from the county for the transport of prisoners from the Washington County Detention Center to local medical facilities.
“Basically, it would be an amount equivalent to what they’ve asked for,” Eldridge said. “There has been an ongoing request from EMS for many years to be paid for prisoner transports from the jail to the local hospital, health facilities, those sorts of things. So what my suggestion is is that if we agree that we’re going to pay for those transports, then the amount of money that will pay for that will essentially provide the additional funding that they have requested from the country.”
As for 911’s request for recurring funding to add dispatch staff, Eldridge said he’s not sure what that entity’s justification is for requesting additional funds.
“They have said they needed additional dispatchers, but yet our dispatch volume has not increased.” Eldridge said. “With 911 it’s just a matter of better understanding the justification for the additional funding.”
While Eldridge has said that the upcoming fiscal year’s budget has been the most difficult since he’s been in office, the additional health care cost has specifically played a large role in the budget and budget committee discussions. And those health care costs have also affected the county’s fund balance.
“What we have had to do is during the current fiscal year that ends next week, we have had to use general fund balance to pay the excess health care expenses for our employees,” Eldridge said. “Our health care expenses have been considerably higher than what we’ve budgeted this year.”
The county is also trying to stay within their financial policies regarding the fund balance; Eldridge said the policies state that the county is to maintain four months of operating expenses in their fund balance. Due to an unexpected increase in health care costs, the fund balance is an avenue the county mayor is opposed to considering in funding the three public safety requests—leaving the county in search of a recurring source of revenue.
“As we look at these additional requests for funding, EMS, 911, the volunteer department paid firefighters, it is really important that we have a recurring source of revenue identified as opposed to just saying, ‘we’ll take that amount out of the fund balance,’ because all three of these are recurring expenses,” Eldridge explained. “We’re going to have to pay for them every year. And realizing that our fund balance is near our policy minimums, it just isn’t feasible to take that out of the fund balance this year.
“So we’ve got to have the recurring source of revenue to pay for it.”