POINT PLEASANT — An “unfortunate situation.”
This is the way Commissioners Miles Epling and Rick Handley described county budget cuts proposed for Fiscal Year 2013-14 — a budget which went from $7.6 million last year to $7.2 million after losses in revenue from dismantling a unit at American Electric Power’s Philip Sporn Plant and a skyrocketing regional jail bill.
Epling, along with Commissioners Rick Handley and Tracy Doolittle, heard from members of organizations who received word of drastic cuts in county funding at yesterday’s regular Mason County Commission meeting. Several outside agencies, meaning those which receive county funding outside of county offices, received 50 percent funding cuts pretty much across the board. These agencies include EMS, all fire departments, the health department, all local libraries and more.
Present at yesterday’s meeting were firefighters from Leon, Flatrock and Point Pleasant, including Fire Chiefs Frankie Chapman, Charlie Smith and Jeremy Bryant. Chapman, who is Leon’s Fire Chief, said due to a 50 percent cut in funding from the county, his department would have to look at ways to cut back on manpower as well as equipment and fuel costs. He said mutual aid with other fire departments and agencies would likely be affected — for example, only sending one truck out instead of two. He added directing traffic to assist other departments at accident scenes or scenes involving law enforcement may have to be cut and helping EMS personnel load patients would likely cease due to the rising cost of workers’ compensation premiums.
Bryant said he understood taking a budget hit during hard economic times but he, along with some of the other firefighters in the county, wondered why outside agencies took such a hit when county offices weren’t affected. Bryant felt the cuts should’ve been more evenly distributed and absorbed.
Commission President Rick Handley said no county offices took a funding cut but they also didn’t receive a raise from last year. These county offices are funded first which is the constitutional duty of the commission and then funding of outside agencies are taken into consideration. Handley has said county offices will be operating at “bare bones” and Gerlach told Bryant the only place for county offices to cut was personnel and layoffs were something which the county was trying to avoid.
Bryant said he felt there was county money being spent on projects which could’ve been put back into the budget to avoid such drastic budget cuts, mentioning the renovation of the old Point Pleasant Hardware building as one of these projects. Gerlach said the county is now looking at new ways to pay for this renovation by considering a lease/purchase agreement or bonds, as well as paying for the project over a longer period of time to receive lower monthly payments.
In the middle of this discussion on cuts to the fire departments, tones to dispatch personnel with the Point Pleasant Fire Department went off as Bryant was making a point about the county needing a long term plan to secure the future of fire service in Mason County.
Doolittle said the commission wanted everyone in the room to be aware it appreciated the services those agencies provide citizens, with Epling assuring Bryant no one who worked on the county budget wanted to cut the fire department funding by 50 percent. Doolittle told those in attendance there was no “perfect answer” to this problem but asked everyone to be aware the commission is looking for any way to cut corners or find alternative funding to offset the cuts. Handley also reiterated if there is any “carry over” left at the end of this fiscal year or if the county can get any money from a state program for communities which have lost utility revenue, those funds would go to EMS and fire services first.
Also speaking to the commission was Diana Riddle, the head of the Mason County Health Department which is also receiving a 50 percent county budget cut. Riddle said her department appreciates what the commission has done and can do for her agency. Obviously concerned about the budget cuts, Riddle told the commission the Mason County Board of Health would be meeting on April 1 to discuss how this cut in funding will affect programs offered to the community and how to continue to maintain services.
Also speaking, an unidentified representative from the county libraries, which also took a 50 percent hit. This representative asked the commission for help in identifying any sources of grant money to help with operating costs. The libraries are getting a double hit with a reduction in both county and state funding.
The commission ultimately, unanimously approved the new budget though Doolittle hesitated, saying she felt it needed to be looked at closer and would only approve it if changes could later be made to it, which Gerlach said was possible.
More on how the budget breaks down in a related story in Saturday’s Point Pleasant Register.