Fire chiefs want county to provide more money to support departments

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By John Barnhart

    Bedford’s volunteer fire chiefs believe the county’s new fire department funding formula is inadequate, according to Eric Shell, Hardy’s fire chief.
    Shell, representing the county’s fire commission and backed by various fire chiefs who filled two pews in the supervisors’ meeting chamber, spoke before the county supervisors at a work session Monday night.
    Shell said the fire departments have had  flat funding for 20 years.
    “Nothing has gotten cheaper [during those years] for none of us,” he said.
    Shell said that the equipment they need has become more intricate and expensive. Fire trucks, for example, cost between $450,000 and $550,000 each. He added that the departments have been without a capital improvement plan for five years.
    Shell said the equipment the fire departments use is wearing out and they have no money to replace it and maintenance costs are soaring.
    “The fire agencies of Bedford County can’t afford to stay at the current level of funding,” he said.
    The current economy is making it harder for fire departments to raise money.
    “People are not making donations like they once did,” Shell said, adding that this is because people don’t have the money to do it.
    Shell said volunteer firefighters do everything they can to keep costs down.
    “Our members paint walls, do plumbing repairs, do whatever repairs to apparatus they can,” Shell said.
    “Our people are getting tired,” he said. “We can’t continue down this road.”
    “My fear is what it’s going to do is destroy the morale of the volunteer system,” Shell concluded.
    Also at the work session, the supervisors were given a presentation on projected expenses for the budget they are developing.
    Deputy County Administrator Frank Rogers presented them with a budget which, at present, is $141,484 short of being balanced, after county staff trimmed $1 million off department requests. The budget does not contain funding for three new school resource officers that the sheriff requested. It also eliminates most vehicle requests, only funding five patrol vehicles out of a total of 16 requested. It level funds the Capital Improvement Plan.
    It contains an assumption about the former group home buildings on Falling Creek Road. Rogers said staff anticipates leasing four of the group home’s cottages. This will bring in $110,513, reducing the debt service the county must pay on the loan it took out to build the group home.
    The budget also contains two unknowns. It does not include an increase in medical insurance costs because county staff does not yet know what those increases will be. Rogers said that a 12 percent increase, which would amount to an extra $258,700 in premiums, is possible.
    The county also doesn’t know how much the school board will ask for in its budget. Rogers included $39 million — the same amount supervisors transferred to the schools last year — as a place holder. He added that, by the time the school board votes on the school budget, it will be time for the supervisors to advertise a budget public hearing.