By Debbie Hall
The Patrick County Board of Supervisors is considering a number of ways to address a nearly $9 million deficit and balance the budget that begins July 1, with suggestions that include furloughing the annual capital improvement fire/rescue funds.
At a recent board meeting, Crystal Harris, vice chairman and of the Smith River District, said that she has spent nearly 40 years in public safety, and “I know a lot of what the fireman go through.” The capital improvement fund was “set up years ago. It can only be used to buy equipment or capital improvement. If you’re going to roll back taking their money for their vehicles, then you need to take everybody’s vehicle money away. No one needs to have vehicle money. If fire and rescue don’t get money for a vehicle, then you need to take everyone else’s away. That’s just my opinion. I’ve always supported fire and rescue. I’ve been accused of being too partial, but I understand where everybody’s coming from.
Denise Stirewalt said “when I recommended that (furlough), my thought process was only taking it for a year.”
“I understand you want to furlough it one year,” Harris said, adding that the recommendation “wasn’t perceived very well. Everybody knows that we’re in a bind. I know the budget committee worked diligently, but if you’re going to take that, you better think about taking everybody’s.”
Stirewalt, of the Peters Creek District, said she also thought an idea floated by Sandra Stone, Treasurer, to create a single fund that could be used by any fire or rescue agency was “an awesome recommendation.”
With a single fund, when a department “needs something, then if we have it, we give it and if we don’t, we’re not able to. I think that would be something if it’s too late to look in this year, maybe in future years,” Stirewalt said. “I understand the importance of equipment for both fire and rescue.
“I will say when Henry County started their paid service, they stopped funding the fire and rescue squads. I’m not recommending that. I’m just putting that out there,” Stirewalt said.
She recounted a recent discussion with a caller “who was so upset, she was talking about suing the county because her parents pay taxes here and it took a (volunteer) rescue squad in their district over 20 minutes to get to her parents’ house. ‘I want to know why your paid service did not respond first. That’s how it should be in any county. The taxes go for paid service. Your volunteers are your backup,’” Stirewalt said she was told.
“I am 100 percent in support of all our fire and rescue, but I think there should be another way we should be able to handle this. I by no means make any recommendation we should not fund” volunteer agencies, Stirewalt said, and added that since the capital improvement funds had been furloughed in past budget years, she did not understand why that wasn’t a possibility.
“Before when it happened, they were promised double the money back and it didn’t happen,” Harris said.
“Not on my watch,” Stirewalt said.
Deloach, of the Blue Ridge District, said he did not “have any problem cutting the rest of the vehicles” from the budget.
“What’s good for the goose is good for the gander,” Harris said.
“What other vehicles, Crystal,” Kendrick, of the Mayo River District, asked Harris, noting that cutting vehicles from the proposed sheriff’s office budget had been recommended. The Department of Social Services also has delayed a vehicle purchase.
To clarify, Kendrick said “we’re not doing away with” the fire and rescue capital improvement fund. “We’re only waiving it one year to let us balance budget. Have you got any other ideas? You all asked us to make cuts. I fought fires on Bull Mountain when I was in school. I’m all for fire and rescue, but we’ve got to sacrifice somewhere. We’ve got to have a balanced budget this year.”
Jane Fulk, chairman and of the Dan River District, said “you want to cut the fire and rescue capital funds to balance the budget this year. Next year, where will you get the money to give it back to them (and) keep your balanced budget? You’re not balancing a budget when you take out a whole section at a time. We could have done that last year, and that would have took care of balancing the budget last year if we had done that, but that was not what we wanted to do because fire and rescue is an important part of this county.”
“So, we find the funds elsewhere,” Stirewalt said. “What about SROs? Why aren’t we looking at SROs,” she asked of School Resource Officers. She noted that Patrick County had only three incidents that occurred at schools between March 20, 2019 and March 20, 2020, but more than 350 requests in that time period for SRO overtime pay.
She noted the sheriff’s proposed budget included $115,000 for overtime payments; the 911 Center has requested $45,000 in overtime pay, she added.
“I don’t understand the overtime. I just don’t understand overtime. My husband, who’s in the accounting field, said he had never heard anybody budgeting for overtime,” Stirewalt said, and recommended a total $100,000 cut in overtime pay to the two budgets.
Noting that he also had worked in on business budgets, at churches and hospitals, Deloach said “I agree 100 percent. They would have laughed me out of the hospital if I had budgeted overtime.”
Patrick County Sheriff Dan Smith has said the so-called overtime pay is a misnomer, and essentially is due to bookkeeping. Simply put, it is the way SROs are paid. He also noted that federal law requires overtime pay for anything over 40 hours per week, and that deputies are often called out at night to investigate crimes, transport mental health patients due to Emergency Custody Orders (ECOs), and perform other duties as required.
“Somehow, there is a misconception that deputies are exempt from being paid overtime, but federal law clearly states that is not the case,” Smith said.
Fulk said “we have right now seven people, one is strictly overtime all the time, but he is also our extra road deputy that that we pay for. We can go back to having two road deputies per 12-hour shift.
“If we’re paying overtime, wouldn’t it make more sense to just do two part–time, and not pay the overtime and not put it on the budget,” Deloach asked, and speculated that practice would “save money in the long run.”
Stirewalt broached the subject of sharing one officer between some schools. “It used to work when they had shared SROs, except for the high school,” which has a full-time SRO.
Fulk said that SROs in elementary schools may leave their assigned school to answer a call in another area of the community.
Smith said that depends on the type of call. For instance, an SRO may respond to a motor vehicle accident. However, the officer would not respond to a call that posed any type of threat to the school.
“I just don’t like cutting fire and I don’t like cutting my resource officers,” Harris said.
“It’s not cutting” fire and rescue funds, but determining “if they could just do without it for one year to help us out,” Kendrick said. “We all think just as much of them as you do,” he said to Harris, “and we aren’t trying to hurt anybody, but everybody has got to sacrifice.”
“If you furlough fire and rescue for a year, you knock all the other fire and rescue back a year,” because the capital improvement funds are distributed to a single agency annually, Fulk said.
“What else do we do? The only other thing I can think of that we have done is cut enough to balance the budget, and that didn’t go over really good either,” Kendrick said.
“You’re not going to be able to put that fire and rescue money in next year’s budget because you’re not going to have any more money next year than you do this year,” Fulk said.
Kendrick said that “hopefully, we might get some more (revenues) by next year. We’re working on something. No guarantee.”
Noting the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, Deloach said “hopefully we will have recovered by next year and we’ll have more money.”
She added that the state gives constitutional officers “a raise every year and we have county employees who haven’t had a raise in going on 5–years. I just have an issue with that.”
The board’s next work session is set for 6 p.m. on Tuesday, June 2, in the Patrick County Veterans Memorial Building in Stuart.