Non-profit groups detail budget needs

By Kathy Helms-Hughes
STAR STAFF
khelms@starhq.com

   The first group of non-profit organizations went before the Carter County Budget Committee Monday night to present their lists of wishes, wants and needs for the 2003-2004 fiscal year. Each group was allotted 15 minutes to present its request.
   Carter County Finance Director Jason Cody set the tone for the evening, reminding presenters as he opened the meeting: "We are in very tight, challenging times."
   Budget requests from non-profits for the current 2002-03 fiscal year totaled $1,062,332. For fiscal year 2003-04, which begins July 1, non-profit organizations are seeking a total of $1,035,629, a difference of $26,830.
   Carter County Emergency & Rescue Squad, Carter County Volunteer Fire Departments, Carter County Emergency 911, Carter County Health Department, Economic Development Commission, First Tennessee Development District, First Tennessee Human Resources Agency, Upper East Tennessee Human Development Agency, and Elizabethton/Carter County Public Library presented their requests Monday evening.
   Most of the organizations held their budget requests to the same as last year's. The largest increase sought -- $8,000 -- was for the library, followed by a request for $7,000 from Emergency 911, and a request for a $1,000 increase for each of the seven volunteer fire departments.
   Terry Arnold, director of Carter County EMS, said the squad is asking for $320,000 from the county. "That's no increase from the previous year. But our total budget for this year coming up, 2003-2004, is $2,116,148.17, an increase of $9,000 over last year. The county is giving us 15.12 percent of our total budget. We try to set our budget on what the call volume may be. If the call volume is down, we ain't got no money," he said.
   The majority of funding for the squad, or 82.61 percent, comes from ambulance billing revenues. In the 2003 budget, that was estimated at $1,748,148.17. Arnold is projecting an increase to $1,760,148.17 in FY 2003-04 due to additional call volume.
   An estimated $4,000 in corporate donations, $22,000 from the City of Elizabethton, and $10,000 in private donations round out the squad's projected budget.
   This does not leave anything extra for "luxury" items, such as a new roof. Upon questioning from the budget committee, Arnold said that at Station 1, which is 30 years old, "When it rains, we have a bucket brigade." Engineers have told him it would cost more to have the station remodeled that it would to rebuild it.
   David Nichols, president of the Carter County Fire Association, asked the county for a $7,000 increase over last year, or $1,000 for each of the county's seven volunteer fire departments.
   The county gives each department $37,500 annually, most of which goes to pay for fire trucks and insurance. Watauga Volunteer Fire Department has two truck payments totaling $38,150.24 annually. However, its expenses are offset by funding received from Washington County ($20,000) and the City of Watauga ($5,000).
   "All trucks except for Elk Mills will be paid off in four years," Nichols said. "Elk Mills refinanced for 16 years, but they have one new fire truck and one that's almost new. They went from being one of the worst equipped, to the best equipped, which is quite an accomplishment," he said, "but they also have a lot of debt."
   Most departments rely heavily on donations and grant money to supplement their budgets. Some of the departments cannot afford to pay insurance on portable equipment, such as radios, Nichols said. If a truck accidentally backs over one, it's gone.
   At Stoney Creek's fire station, the floor is falling in underneath the trucks. Nichols said that during this fiscal year, Stoney Creek and Hampton fire departments were awarded Federal Emergency Management Agency fire act grants: Stoney Creek received $116,000; Hampton, $16,000. They both required a 10 percent match of local money. Both fire departments had the money and brought it to the county commission when they applied for the grants.
   "Stoney Creek's part was approximately $11,600; Hampton's was $1,600," Nichols said. "We need the money back. We had saved the money in Stoney Creek to fix the fire hall floor."
   All seven fire departments have applied for more than $590,000 in grant money to be awarded by October, he told the budget committee. The departments would need $59,000 in matching funds if the grants were awarded. "Some of them have money to cover it, some of them don't. Somebody has got to help us somewhere. Stoney Creek got $100,000 worth of firefighting equipment given to them. It cost us $11,000. You cannot turn that down," he said.
   Glenna Morton, interim director of Carter County Emergency 9-1-1, also asked the budget committee for a $7,000 increase over last year's $85,000 budget request.
   "We have had a drastic increase in health insurance. The cost of retirement has gone up. And the Tennessee Emergency Communications Board is setting new regulations for dispatchers, which involves a great deal more training," Morton said.
   "We're going to have to have a mandatory quality assurance person" to monitor medical calls, she said. "There is no, 'We can put it off for another year.' It's becoming mandatory."
   Asked by Finance Director Cody about the possibility of the district becoming self-sufficient, Morton told the group that was not likely as presently funded. In other areas of the country, she said, the salaries of dispatchers are funded totally by the cities and counties. Elizabethton/Carter County's contribution amounts to 59 percent of the salaries for four dispatch supervisors and five full-time dispatchers. "The district itself is making up the 41 percent for the rest of the budget, which includes the part-time personnel and the administration. That all comes from the 911 surcharge," Morton said.
   The emergency communications district, which has had increases for the last three years in health and retirement costs, is in dire need of new equipment, Morton said. Last year, 911 purchased new telephone equipment to handle wireless customers. "We'll be able to pinpoint where the caller is within about 300 feet," she said. However, that equipment cost more than $190,000, virtually depleting the $193,975 in reserve revenue the center had set aside for the wireless purchase.
   Morton said the emergency district also has a need for more dispatchers to handle the call volume. "Our call volume was 50,000 in 2001 and it was hitting right at 70,000 in 2002. It would be wonderful if we could have an individual dispatcher for fire, one for police, and one for medical calls, but we can't afford it. There's just no way."
   Nichols came to Morton's aid, telling the group, "When the fire departments started running medical calls, that doubled the 911 workload."
   Additional call volume also is a result of wireless customers. During a recent propane truck crash in front of Sycamore Shoals Hospital, dispatchers received more than 40 calls in three minutes. During the North American Rayon fire, over 80 calls were received in five minutes, Morton said.
   "We are understaffed," she said. "There is nothing frivolous in my budget."