Hawkins commission gives volunteer fire departments $4,000 bonus

Jeff Bobo • Sep 25, 2019 at 9:34 AM

ROGERSVILLE — Hawkins County’s volunteer fire departments, which have been reporting a variety of needs they can't afford to pay for, will receive an extra $4,000 this fiscal year from the County Commission.

On Monday, the commission unanimously approved increases to each fire department’s annual contribution, which bumps county volunteer departments from $19,110 to $23,110 and municipal fire departments from $17,150 to $21,150.

The resolution, proposed by commissioners Mike Herrell and Danny Alvis, will cost $48,000 to cover all 12 fire departments this fiscal year.

Earlier this year, representatives from multiple fire departments addressed the County Commission's Public Safety Committee about equipment needs they can't afford, the most pressing of which included replacing expired bunker gear, which can cost up to $10,000 per set.

Volunteer fire departments are also constantly holding fundraisers to help pay for fire apparatus repairs, equipment updates, replacing obsolete radios and other capital expenditures and/or matching funds for grants.

When the County Commission approved the $40 wheel tax increase in 2017, $10 of that $40 increase — or about $500,000 — was set aside to cover the cost of public safety (fire, rescue, EMS etc) contributions in the budget.

The main purpose for earmarking those funds was to ensure that there would be revenue every year to cover the cost of public safety contributions, which was threatened and sometimes reduced every time the county experienced a budget shortfall.

There was also a little extra saved in that public safety fund each fiscal year to hopefully build a surplus public safety fund. The plan was that those extra funds be used for matching grants so as to maximize the amount they benefit VFDs. 

As of Monday, that surplus was $28,336, which means approximately $20,000 of the increase approved Monday will be pulled from the undesignated fund balance (savings).

Budget Committee Chairman John Metz voted in favor of the VFD funding, although he was obviously not enthusiastic about the timing of the resolution coming a month after the 2019-20 budget was approved.

“During the budget process, all motions collectively to cut expenditures was $22,500,” Metz told the commission. “That was 0.13 percent of all expenditures. Now we're going to turn around and spend an extra $20,000 out of the general fund for this.”

Metz added, “$20,000 out of $18 million in expenditures is nothing, but when I say that in the next Budget Committee hearing, I'm going to be told pennies makes dollars and don't scoff over a $1,000 cut. And I don't. It's taxpayers money. We should be responsible.”

The $4,000 VFD stipends is for this fiscal year only and will have to be approved again by the commission if it is to be extended into the 2020-21 fiscal year.

New EMA director approved

In related news, the commission voted unanimously Monday to confirm the hiring of longtime Emergency Management Agency Deputy Director Jamie Miller as the replacement of Gary Murrell, whose resignation takes effect Sept. 30.

Miller has served as assistant EMA director since 2008 and began his career in public safety in 2001 as a junior member of the Hawkins County Rescue Squad. He began his career as an EMT in 2003, has been a paramedic since 2007 and also has 10 years of experience as a firefighter.

Miller told the Times News on Tuesday that over the past 11 years he’s seen the Hawkins County EMA start with only a small office with one military surplus vehicle to a full functioning Emergency Management Agency.

“I look forward to changing roles to the director of the agency and building on what we have accomplished,” Miller said. “I appreciate the county mayor and the commission having confidence in me to fulfill the duties of the EMA director. I look forward to working with all of the departments that the EMA department works with.”

K-9 Bak won’t be gifted to handler

A resolution to sell Hawkins County Sheriff’s Office K-9 Bak to handler Wesley Seals for $1 was pulled from the agenda at the request of Sheriff Ronnie Lawson after a commissioner suggested Bak be used by the Rogersville Police Department.

Seals, a longtime HCSO deputy, was recently hired by the Rogersville Police Department.

A stipulation in the proposed resolution was for Seals to sign an agreement with the HCSO that Bak, who has been in service for six years with Seals, be retired and not be placed in service by any other law enforcement.

Commissioner Mark DeWitte noted, however, that Bak should have at least two years left in service, and DeWitte made a motion to amend the resolution to allow the RPD to use Bak.

After DeWitte made his motion, however, Lawson asked for the resolution to be pulled. 

Hawkins EMS franchise extended

A 90-day extension of Hawkins County EMS’  exclusive operating franchise, which was due to expire Sept. 30, was extended again to June 30, 2020. The original extension was approved to give the commission’s EMS Exploratory Committee time to conduct a study on the future of ambulance services in the county.

The Exploratory Committee is expected to present its recommendation to the commission at its Oct. 28 meeting, although discussion, potential approval and/or implementation of that recommendation may be a lengthy process.