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Hertford County firefighters critical of budget cuts

WINTON – They came by car, truck, and even a few by a fire department vehicle.

They filled the seats and lined the walls of the Multi-Purpose Room inside the Hertford County Courthouse.

They departed the same way they arrived….disappointed.

Approximately 40 volunteer firefighters from across the county attended Monday night’s scheduled meeting of the Hertford County Board of Commissioners. There, a public hearing was on the agenda regarding the proposed 2018-19 county operating budget, one that included a cut in public funding for the county’s volunteer fire departments.

Late last month, County Manager Loria Williams presented her proposed new budget, which will become effective on July 1. Williams recommended a General Fund budget of $25.22 million. That represents an approximate $4 million (13 percent) decrease from the current year’s operating budget of $29.04 million.

To balance the bottom line in the new budget, Williams proposed a three percent, across-the-board decrease in operating funds. She also offered a reduction in force option by not filling 12 positions that are currently vacant, the majority of which are administrative.

The proposed cut to the volunteer fire departments is $8,596. That figure represents $1,074.50 per each of the eight volunteer departments across the county.

“I can’t tell you all the things that the firemen do for our county,” said Will Blanchard, President of the Hertford County Firefighters Association, as he spoke to the commissioners during the public hearing.

“A little over a $1,000 cut may seem as no more than a drop in the bucket, but these fire departments struggle now to keep their doors open and the state requires more and more (regulations) that costs us more to operate.”

Blanchard said the volunteer fire departments in the county conduct fundraisers to help meet their operating expenses.

“They may raise $2,000 (at a fundraiser) and it takes a lot of hard work to raise that amount,” he said. “So, taking a $1,000 away from them is tough on their budget.”

Compounding the issue for the firefighters is the fact that all departments have already set their budgets for the year and have applied for available grants to balance their bottom lines financially.

“So, cutting our money from the county at this point in time really hurts,” Blanchard noted.

He said each department covers their costs for equipment – along with the required maintenance/service tests – insurance on the equipment and buildings, and worker’s compensation insurance.

“Our biggest fear is if you’re cutting our budget this year, then what happens next year, or the next year after that,” Blanchard stressed. “These departments are struggling as it is. We all know that this county cannot provide fire service without these volunteers. These guys don’t pocket that money (from the county); it goes to meet our operating expenses to help better our communities.”

Blanchard added that because the local fire departments have invested their funding wisely, it helps maintain a strong state fire rating. That, in turn, he said helps keep homeowner insurance rates reasonable for county citizens.

“Without those (ratings), homeowners insurance would go up by 24 percent or more here in the county,” he said.

Blanchard then noted the 300-to-400 hours of training the volunteer firefighters in the county undergo each year, all on their time, as well as performing routine maintenance on equipment in an effort to save money.

“These men and women put in their time, their money, their sweat and ask for nothing in return except for the privilege to serve. I feel that cutting their budget is a mistake,” Blanchard concluded.

Como Volunteer Department Captain William Turner also spoke, addressing the financial challenges of his and other volunteer fire departments in the county. He said the $1,000-plus cut hurts the volunteer departments.

“We do conduct fundraisers; we apply for every grant we can find, and most of those grants require matching funds on our end,” Turner said.

He shared the actual costs of equipping firefighters – from boots, helmets, pants, coats, insurance, radios, etc. – costs between $4,000 and $6,000 each, and that doesn’t include air packs, which are priced between $5,000 to $8,000 apiece. Then there are fire truck payments, upkeep on those vehicles, building utilities, maintenance costs on the fire stations, and contributions to the fireman’s relief fund.

“The cost of doing business keeps going up, and now the money from the county is going down,” Turner observed. “What we do is out of the kindness of our hearts to serve the communities where we live. There is no financial gain for any of us.

“When there’s a fire or a motor vehicle accident, our citizens expect a professional response; without adequate funding from the county we can’t provide that professional response,” he added.

Turner said the county manager’s proposal for a three percent, across-the-board cut was not an accurate statement.

“I sat down in the county manager’s office the other day and while I’m not an accountant, I went through the budget, noting the increase and decrease in funds in each department, and it’s not a three percent reduction across the board,” he noted. “In fact, some departments received an increase.”

Commissioner Johnnie Ray Farmer, a former volunteer firefighter in Millennium, said he appreciates the work of these departments.

“This board has been active supporters of our fire departments for years,” Farmer said.

He then went over the proposed budget cuts in the 2018-19 county budget, saying the school system is losing $132,706; Roanoke-Chowan Community College funding is decreased by $29,365; the Albemarle Regional Library System budget is slashed by $3,247 and that county money going to non-profit agencies is cut to zero (a savings to the county of $46,237).

“This is a difficult budget year for all of us,” Farmer stressed.

“Over the past several years, the county’s annual appropriation to all the volunteer fire departments has increased from $111,252 (in 2004-05) to $353,705 (2017-18),” Farmer continued. “We’ve been trying to support you and increase your funding, trying to keep up with your rising costs. We understand what you do for this county, but this is a year where everybody is being cut. For this board, it was either find some cuts or raise taxes.”

Farmer praised Blanchard and Turner for sitting down with the county manager, reading the complete budget, and getting the real facts.

“I can’t stand a liar,” Farmer stressed. “There are two lies circulating among the fire departments. One is that everybody is getting cut and the (county) manager is getting a raise, and the other is everybody is getting cut and the commissioners are getting a raise.

“That is an insult to me,” Farmer continued as the tone of his voice rose. “If you think that I would vote for a budget for anybody at this (commissioners’) table (that includes a seat for the county manager) to get a pay raise and the firemen are getting cut, you should have never cast a vote for me or anybody else that would do that. That is unethical. There are no pay raises in this budget.”

Commission Chairman Curtis Freeman asked Williams to shed some light on Turner’s statement that some county departments were seeing an increase in their 2018-19 budgets.

Williams said in some of the smaller departments, ones with their annual appropriation was under $175,000 where salaries and benefits accounted for the lion’s share of the funding, a three percent cut on “fixed line items” was hard to achieve.

“Yes, there were some departments receiving increases, depending on the circumstances,” Williams said before offering an apology to Turner for her previous “across-the-board” budget cut statement.

She added that the per call money each volunteer fire department annually receives from the county will remain the same.

“When you roll (to a fire), we pay that and will continue to pay that at the end of the year,” Williams promised.

At the close of the public hearing, the board voted to reconvene at 9 a.m. on Wednesday, July 27 to adopt the new budget.

About Cal Bryant

Cal Bryant, a 40-year veteran of the newspaper industry, serves as the Editor at Roanoke-Chowan Publications, publishers of the Roanoke-Chowan News-Herald, Gates County Index, and Front Porch Living magazine.

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