By MARINA WATERS
The Washington County Commission Safety Committee’s plan to add part-time firefighting positions has again sparked a fiery conversation. And now the discussion — which commissioner and public safety committee member Mike Ford said has been kicked around for over 20 years— has resulted in a plan that was approved by the committee during their Thursday, June 1, meeting to be sent on to the county’s budget committee.
Washington County Mayor Dan Eldridge said the plan as of now is to add volunteer firefighters who will receive stipends for their shift work with each of the county’s fire departments. The plan would cost around $500,000 for the county.
“I just know this has been going on for 20 years at least and this is the farthest down the road we’ve been. I’ve not been a commissioner all that many years but it’s been an ongoing problem,” Ford said. “I don’t know where it’s going to begin or where it’s going to end or anything else in between, but we’ve got to start somewhere.”
Earlier this year, the committee discussed adding two full-time employees to each fire department. During the committee’s called meeting and regularly scheduled meeting last week, the committee also considered using 1099 workers, or contracted workers who receive 1099 forms rather than W-2 tax forms. However, the county’s plan to add these workers may hit some financial road blocks; the commission is currently finalizing its budget for the 2018 fiscal year and Eldridge said it’s been somewhat of a struggle for the county this year.
“We are having a lot of trouble getting a half a million dollars for this program through the budget,” Eldridge said. “You’ve all heard me, I don’t know how many times, talk about the challenges that are really starting to pile up on us as a result of growth in the tax space. That’s making it really, really difficult.
“I cannot think of anything that we could do in Washington County right now that would benefit the residents of this county more than to implement this program—I can’t tell you today though that it’s a sure thing with this budget,” Eldridge said.
Apart from financial woes, one community member during the June 1 meeting had geographical concerns; Watauga Volunteer Fire Department Secretary Delisa LaFleur said Watagua VFD has been excluded from the plan and that the fire station that sets less than a mile into neighboring Carter County serves a corner of the county that otherwise might have less fire services.
“How do you as mayor and y’all as commissioners tell Kennametal that their tax money is not going to provide them the same fire services that you’re providing the rest of the county,” LaFleur said. “Simply because our station sits one half of a mile inside Carter County?”
Watauga VFD covers about nine square miles of Washington County and serves the Barnes, Watauga Flats, Hilltop and Cash Hollow communities. Eldridge, however, was concerned about logistics of adding work-shift volunteers to the station that also serves a neighboring county.
“It has nothing to do with where your station is,” Eldridge said. “It has everything to do with us figuring out how we’re going to manage a process where your volunteers—who are Watauga Volunteer Fire Department volunteers paid with Washington County tax payer dollars—are going to be designated for Washington County fires only. What happens when your department gets paged out and the only ones in the station are the paid volunteers who are paid by Washington County tax dollars?”
The commissioners agreed that their goal at the moment is to gain traction and to “get something started” in order to get some sort of plan in action.
“This is I think the best idea we’ve ever had,” Eldridge said. “It’s the most practical way to do it. It’s the least expensive way to do it that’s ever been developed to accomplish what we want to accomplish. One way or another, I really want us to figure out how to get this done.”
The county’s next budget meeting will be held on Wednesday June 7 at 9 a.m. at the Historic Courthouse at 100 E Main St., Jonesborough.