Hawkins fire chiefs sound alarm about funding cuts

Jeff Bobo • May 19, 2017 at 8:32 AM

ROGERSVILLE — Stacy Vaughan is in a tough position because on the one hand, he is the Hawkins County Commission’s Budget Committee chairman who voted for the proposed 20 percent cuts to all county contributions including fire, EMS and rescue.

But, as the Stanley Valley Volunteer Fire Department chief, Vaughan told the Budget Committee last week the 20 percent cut will “cripple” his department.

And that’s not even the worst case scenario. The doomsday scenario is if the county commission fails to approve a balanced budget by July 1 and the state comptroller’s office intervenes.

Earlier this week, Tennessee Comptroller Chief of Staff Jason Mumpower warned commissioners that a state takeover of the county’s budget would result in 100 percent of discretionary spending being cut.

That’s all contributions to nonprofit organizations including $19,110 from each of the non-municipal fire departments; $17,150 from the municipal fire departments; and an additional $20,000 that the Church Hill Fire Department receives for being the first responder at the Phipps Bend Industrial Park. The two rescue squads would lose $49,000 each and Hawkins County EMS would be cut $30,000.

As the Budget Committee chairman, Vaughan said he was directed by the full commission to make spending cuts wherever possible.

Speaking as the SVVFD Chief, however, Vaughan told the Times-News Thursday his department can only provide the services that his available funding allows.

“We will continue to operate until our funds are gone, and then we’ll go from there,” Vaughan said. “Back in the 1990s, members actually put fuel in fire trucks out of their own pocket. I watched former chief Kermit Vaughan do that a lot to keep the department going. I thought we were trying to move forward and get past those days, but it seems like we may be coming full circle and heading back.”

Vaughan noted that the cuts don’t just have an impact on the fire departments. When they are hampered by funding limitations, fire insurance premiums are affected as well, and that will have an impact on every property owner.

“If this happens, Hawkins County is going to be less desirable for both industrial and residential development,” Vaughan said. “It might seem like we’re saving some money on the front end, but the ramifications are much more serious.”

Striggersville VFD Chief Rufus Hayes said the ramification of a 100 percent county funding cut would likely be his department shutting its doors.

“We’ll have to,” Hayes said. “If they cut us down to zero, we’ll just shut the doors. We don’t have anybody else to help us.”

Aside from covering a large territory in the middle of Hawkins County, Striggersville is also a primary backup responder for departments literally from one end of the county to the other, including Church Hill, Bulls Gap, Persia, Lakeview and Clinch Valley.

Striggersville uses the county contribution to pay for liability insurance and other necessities such as fuel. Funding can be depleted in a hurry when there’s a major fire.

“You take a run on those pumpers four or five hours, and you’ll put 100 gallons of fuel in it,” Hayes said. “If you blow out a tire, that’s $400. We need turnout gear for our firefighters, and one set of turnout gear costs $15,000, and we have 30 members. When I buy batteries, you have to put two on those trucks, and that’s $500.

“We’re already barely making it, and if they cut us by 20 percent, we probably won’t last six months.”

Last year’s wildfires in and around Laurel Run Park were especially costly for several departments. Hayes said funding cuts are going to put the safety and property of county residents at risk, especially those who live in rural areas.

“If we get a mountain fire that threatens these $100,000 homes, $500,000 homes up in these mountains, they’ll burn down just like they did in Gatlinburg last year,” Hayes said. “We try to have things like tractor pulls and little fundraisers to pull us through, but we can’t raise enough to make up for losing $19,500. We raise about $7,000 to $8,000 already, and we need every penny of that on top of the $19,500 we get from the county.”

Bulls Gap Fire Chief Charles Johnson said his department has a $17,000 loan repayment every year for a fire truck and turnout gear, so a 100 percent cut from the county would put his department in a big hole.

The only alternative would likely be closing the St. Clair station and only answering calls within the Bulls Gap city limits. County funding is about 80 percent of his department’s overall budget. The rest of his funding comes from fundraisers.

“The 20 percent cut won’t hurt us as bad as cutting us down to zero would,” Johnson said. “We wouldn’t have any money for training.

“I’ve sat down with several fire chiefs across Hawkins County, and they’re all in the same place I am. We’re running on a shoestring budget as it is. I’ve probably got $1,000 in my checking account. If we have a major fire, or an equipment breakdown, that could wipe us out completely.”

Persia VFD Chief Charles “Chili” Sanders said the county contribution accounts for about 70 percent of his department’s overall revenue.

A 100 percent funding cut would likely result in his department being unable to assist neighboring fire departments with their calls.

“We’d just have to kind of draw it in and just work in our community only,” Sanders said. “Not go out to all of the ends of the county. We’d just have to try to protect Persia, because with the cost of diesel fuel, it gets expensive. Everybody can get by with a 20 percent cut. It would be rough and we’ll have to cut down a lot of things.”

Lakeview VFD Chief James Klepper said his department could survive a 20 percent funding cut. A 100 percent funding cut would put the department at risk.

“That (100 percent cut) would cost us over half of our revenue, and it would be a fight to keep it open,” Klepper said. “We’d have to cut some of the running out. Maybe start sending one truck instead of two, and for wrecks just the minimum that you can send. When it comes down to it, we may have to completely quit running wrecks and just run fire.”

On Monday, the Hawkins County Commission will be presented with an out-of-order resolution proposing another wheel tax increase.

Klepper said he believes the commission should increase the wheel tax and the property tax as well. He said the proposed cuts aren’t worth the risk they’re placing on lives and property.

“We cover 79 square miles, and we assist Striggersville, Bulls Gap and Clinch Valley too. We’re taking half the county in, or more, and if we have to cut back on the running, it’s going to put people’s lives at risk. Definitely.”                                                       

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