By MARINA WATERS
Each commissioner at the Washington County Commission’s Budget meeting on Wednesday, June 14, knew the 2018 fiscal year budget would be a tight one—but that didn’t stop them from searching for room to add three additional public safety requests in that same slim budget.
Washington County Emergency Communications District (911) requested $74,556 to enhance dispatching procedures and staffing, Washington County-Johnson City EMS requested $206,000 request for additional staff and vehicle purchases and the Washington County Volunteer Fire Departments requested $425,000 to add paid firefighting positions to six stations. The committee unanimously agreed to reevaluate the coming fiscal year’s budget in an attempt to add the three public service requests.
This, however, comes after an almost $1 million additional healthcare cost to the budget that Washington County Mayor Dan Eldridge said could be even more by the following year’s budget.
“Let me share with you the reason why this has not been included in the budget,” Washington County Mayor Dan Eldridge said. “We’ve all experienced the difficulties we’ve had this year with the budget. We know the uncertainty we are facing moving forward with our healthcare costs. All three of these requests (from the three public safety entities) require reoccurring money—I can’t tell you where it’s going to come from.
“There is not a source of reoccurring funding that could pay for this, as desperately as we need it. The Volunteer Fire Department (request) has been probably as big a concern as I have had since I’ve been in office. It is a high priority.”
Eldridge said the county has talked about adding additional firefighters to county fire departments for at least 20 years. The proposed plan would add two volunteers who would receive stipends for the shift work they would perform to the Embreeville, Fall Branch, Gray, Limestone, Nolichuckey and Sulphur Springs Volunteer Fire Departments for $425,000.
The two volunteers added to each station would work during daytime hours Monday through Friday from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. During the budget meeting, Fall Branch Volunteer Fire Department Chief Jim Dawson said volunteer fire departments across the county are in need of personnel hours.
“This day and age, it takes almost both people in the home with a job,” Dawson said. “It’s just like anything else; volunteerism is probably dropping more so than it probably ever has before as far as being able to go out and find people that are willing to be qualified to do the job. Every department in the county sees that problem in the day time.”
Dawson also said adding two volunteers to the six fire departments would enable the departments to assist the county should a daytime fire occur. For now, Dawson said, the departments house a lower number of volunteers during the day than the number they would need if such a fire were to occur.
“Two people are not going to be able to fight a big fire, but you’re going to be able to respond, to be able to do something which can give you more time until help gets there,” Dawson explained. “That’s the biggest thing.
“We had a structure fire the other night that Gray, Sulphur Springs and Fall Branch responded on. When we got done and I did the count on them, we had 31 people. If that had happened in the daytime hours, we might have had 10 or 12.”
County Commissioner and committee Chairman Joe Grandy also mentioned these shift-work roles could help in the survival of volunteer fire departments as the new roles could potentially bring more volunteers into the organization. Grandy also expressed his concern in trying to fit public safety requests into the budget.
“I understand our obligations, but it’s really troubling to me that we are budgeting in items that are non-profits that we could potentially spend on some public safety issues,” Grandy said. ”I think that we need to get right back into this thing, go through our budget and let’s talk about priorities. All three of these are public safety, high priority—much higher than other things in our budget.”
The committee agreed to have Commissioner and Director of Finance and Administration Mitch Meredith reexamine the budget to see if other items could be reduced. The next budget committee meeting is on Wednesday, June 21, at 8 a.m. in the courthouse conference room on the first floor.