Squad budget OK'd with 5 percent cut; VFD funds restored

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

   Following two tumultuous days of debate, coupled with some allegedly intimidating remarks, the Carter County Budget Committee voted Tuesday night to approve the General Fund budget, which includes funds for Carter County Rescue Squad and the county's seven volunteer fire departments.
   The budget was amended to restore proposed cuts of $1,875 to each of the fire departments and included a 5 percent cut in funding for the rescue squad.
   Following heated debate Monday night, the committee stalled on approving budgets for the Carter County School System and rescue squad. Commissioner Joe Woods said fellow commissioner and committee member Tom "Yogi" Bowers asked for records from the squad and "they refused to give them to them."
   Woods said Tuesday afternoon, "I couldn't vote on that budget because they refused to show papers on where the money is going. The squad told me they took in $2 million in payments plus $320,000 from us, and we just wanted to see where that $320,000 was going, instead of into a 'kitty.' It's not right. It's taxpayers' money, like Yogi told them. And I backed Yogi on it."
   Woods seconded Bowers motion not to approve the squad budget until paperwork was presented. As he got up to leave the meeting, Woods said a squad member approached him "and whispered in my ear, 'You ought to have burnt up.' "
   Woods escaped serious injury three weeks ago today when his home caught fire. Woods, who was awakened by one of his dogs, was found lying in his driveway after he broke out a living room window and escaped.
   After hearing the squad member say what Woods thought he heard, "I got after my cane," apparently waving it in the squad member's face, "and the sheriff grabbed me," Woods said. "I usually don't fly mad; but I did. I didn't hit nobody."
   Woods said Sheriff John Henson and Deputy Jim Whaley, who is also a county commissioner, escorted him out of the building. He went over to the sheriff's department "had a cup of coffee and cooled down and got over it."
   But as far as the squad budget, he said Tuesday, "I still want to see papers. That's my job."
   When debate resumed Tuesday evening, Commissioner Jack Buckles told the group that a 5 percent cut of squad funds was a move backward. "It's the same thing as the fire departments. It makes no sense. The fire departments and rescue squad do an excellent job," he said, and also are part of the infrastructure needed to lure and keep industry in the county. "You've got to have good emergency services. That's just part of it."
   Bowers spoke up. "I agree with what he says, but as discussed last night, the county commission and the taxpayers are entitled to full disclosure in a $2.2 million budget when they're asking for $320,000.
   Buckles asked him what he wanted to know, to which Bowers responded, "I would like to have a list of everybody's salaries."
   Buckles presented a letter and legal information from the squad's attorney, Roger Day, and told the group that according to that information, passed down to him Tuesday, "any non-profit organization that receives less than 30 percent of their budget from a county government does not have to disclose any personal information about salaries or anything else." Bowers contradicted.
   "Why wouldn't you want to?" Commissioner John D. Snyder asked Buckles.
   "Some things are personal. There are some things in your life Mr. Snyder that you wouldn't want ..."
   Snyder interrupted. "But the county's not paying me ..."
   Bowers said that just because the letter was from Attorney Day didn't make it the law.
   Day said in his letter that he had spoken with a third party, Melissa Ashburn of MTASK, "who stated that I was correct in my interpretation of the above statute. I also met with County Attorney George Dugger Jr., this morning and he agrees with our position that we are not obligated under state law to turn over our personnel pay records."
   Buckles said, "Black and white from the county attorney." But Bowers told him, "It is a matter of discussion when you take taxpayers' dollars and you don't tell them where it's going. It gives the impression that you're hiding stuff from them."
   Buckles said he could give committee members a percentage overview of how the money is spent, but "as far as getting it down to pennies and everything, that's impossible."
   Bowers said, "Well, we need accountability, that's what we're talking about."
   Buckles suggested he look at the audit on file in the clerk's office downstairs in the county courthouse. "I have the audit," Bowers said.
   "State law says we don't have to release it. If you want to go against state law ..." Buckles trailed off.
   "We're just asking for it voluntarily," Snyder said.
   Finance Director Jason Cody interrupted the debate. "We'll review it. Let's move ahead. I don't want to get us bogged down too much. We've got a long night."
   When discussion began on cutting 5 percent from the $37,500 allocated to each of the county's fire departments, Commissioner Jim Whaley, who was in the audience, said, "We gave them a 5 percent raise last year and here we are this year taking it away from them. They all volunteer services. ... Anything we can give them to help them, we should be scraping it up somewhere to give to them."
   Buckles agreed, saying the proposed cut would set the fire departments back four years. Woods said, "I would like to see it stay at $37,500 if there's any way we can work it."
   Cody told the group that it is challenging times and that the county is looking at cuts across the board. "What we've done is we've cut the individual departments $1,875 apiece, but we did under 'other charges' add $15,000 for the grant that has come in to fully fund that. So, if you look at the bottom line, it's actually a slight increase."
   A member of Watauga Volunteer Fire Department disagreed. "What about the fire departments that didn't get a grant? You're cutting us," she said.
   After lengthy discussion, David Nichols, president of the Carter County Fire Association said, "The only way to come up with that $1,875 is to stop driving our vehicles so much. If we do that, that entails two things: medical responses and automatic mutual aid. If we stop doing automatic mutual aid, Stoney Creek, West Carter's and Central's ISO rating goes back from a 7 to a 9 and my homeowner's insurance policy goes up $240. I don't think most of your constituents would like that."
   Cody said the county is talking about going to a centralized fuel system, which will help the fire departments save money on fuel.
   "That would help two or three, but there's no way for Roan Mountain and Elk Mills to drive down to the Highway Department and fill those trucks and us save money," Nichols said. Eddie Clawson, Elk Mills Fire Chief, said that would be 50 miles round-trip for his department.
   Bayless made a motion to approve the General Fund budget as presented with an amendment to restore funding to last year's level of $37,500, plus the $15,000 in grant money. The motion was approved unanimously. The money will be taken from the approximately $78,000 operating surplus in the General Fund.