MASON COUNTY — A 50 percent decrease in funding is a lot for anyone to absorb and for many critical agencies in Mason County, that’s a reality they are facing July 1 due to county budget cuts.
All six fire departments in Mason County, along with Mason County EMS, are set to see a 50 percent cut in county funding at the start of the new fiscal year. (See related story on county budget woes on page one).
Jeremy Bryant, fire chief for the Point Pleasant Fire Department, seemed to echo the sentiment of his peers throughout the county, when he said he hopes the Mason County Commission will reconsider its proposed budget and look at cuts in areas other than “life safety.”
The proposed budget will be up for a vote at Thursday’s regular meeting of the Mason County Commission.
Bryant said he understood taking a cut due to difficult economic times but felt “50 percent” was a lot to overcome for any agency. He supports lesser cuts more evenly distributed throughout the county if possible.
Bryant stressed his frustration and opposition to the cuts for fire departments and EMS wasn’t personal when it comes to the county commission, but was rather a reflection of his major concern for the safety of firefighters, emergency medical personnel and people living in Mason County, not just in Point Pleasant.
In Point Pleasant’s case, the fire department has an annual budget of around $85,000 of which it received $31,000 in county funding last year, with the rest of its budget financed through municipal fees, insurance money from the state and fundraisers. On July 1, that $31,000 in county funding will go to $15,500 though the expenses to run the department will not decrease - it’s a similar scenario for all fire departments and EMS in Mason County.
The Point Pleasant Fire Department averages around one-plus run a day and had just under 400 runs last year, according to Bryant. Another financial burden for fire departments is the escalating cost of workers’ compensation premiums. Last year the Point Pleasant Fire Department had no workers’ compensation claims but paid out $13,000 in premiums - not so long ago, the department’s workers’ compensations premiums were around $4 - 5,000. Again, a scenario felt around the county and state. Bryant estimates it costs around $6,000 to train and equip one volunteer firefighter.
It’s a similar story for countless agencies in Mason County and throughout West Virginia - do more with less money.
As for Mason County EMS, it will go from $120,000 in county funding to $60,000 starting July 1. Commission President Rick Handley said he’d spoken with Chuck Blake of Mason County EMS, and as of right now, the agency isn’t looking at any layoffs of employees.
Handley said the commission is well aware of the vital services EMS and fire departments provide for the citizens of Mason County. For this reason, should any money be “carried over” from last year’s budget or any funding from a state assistance program for counties which lose major revenue from utilities be provided, EMS and fire departments will be at the top of the list to receive this money. As reported in today’s story on the county budget on page one, the county will lose $429,000 in revenue from a unit going offline at the Philip Sporn Plant in New Haven and is already projecting $200,000 more than what was budgeted for regional jail costs.
As Handley put it, due to these new financial realities, the county had “no choice” but to make the cuts to not only EMS and fire departments, but a host of other outside agencies. No cuts were made to county offices but no raises were given either. Handley said the county is mandated to fund these county offices within certain parameters first and then funding of outside agencies is considered with what money is left.
“I hope people across the county realize what a hit we are taking and we’re doing everything we can to balance the budget,” Handley said.
Bryant said in the short term, his department will survive the cuts, but in the long run, he’s concerned about fire service in Mason County and how to recoup a disappearing pool of income and still maintain services to the community.