ROGERSVILLE — The Hawkins County Commission approved its 2008-09 fiscal year budget by a single vote Monday night — the first budget in five years without a property tax increase, although the county’s emergency services volunteers would argue that the price was too high.
The budget as approved Monday calls for a surplus of about $300,000. Members of the commission’s Budget Committee vowed this year to hold the line on taxes, but that meant making cuts including a 10 percent decrease to all charitable contributions.
A huge contingent of fire and rescue workers packed the Hawkins County Courthouse Circuit Courtroom Monday in hopes that their power in numbers might persuade commissioners to reject the cut of their funding. It didn’t work.
They had several supporters on the County Commission, however, including Commissioner Chris Jones, who is also the Mount Carmel fire chief.
Jones’ motion to amend the budget by restoring all contributions to last year’s level received a 10-9 vote with one abstention. But that motion failed because a majority of the entire 21-member body, or 11 votes, is required to approve budget items.
The budget containing the originally proposed 10 percent cuts to all fire and rescue agency contributions was approved by a vote of 12-6 with two abstentions.
All 12 fire departments in Hawkins County, as well as the Hawkins County Fireman’s Association, were cut $1,500 each. The county’s two ambulance services were cut $3,000 each, Hawkins County 911 was cut $14,000, Hawkins County HazMat was cut $2,000, and both rescue squads were cut $5,000 each for an overall reduction in emergency services spending of $51,500.
Another hot topic Monday was a resolution proposed by Commissioner Danny Alvis calling for all county commissioners to accept a 10 percent cut in their salary. The money would be used to raise a $1,000 donation to help pay for the purchase of two new vans to transport disabled veterans to the Veterans Administration Medical Center in Johnson City.
An initial request of $3,000 to help pay for the vans was denied, along with all new contribution requests.
The voluntary pay cut to help fund the vans was defeated by a vote of 9-11.
Following the meeting, the large contingent of firefighters met outside the courthouse and passed the hat to help raise money for the veterans van. Within a few minutes they’d raised more than $600 and planned on raising more at a Fireman’s Association meeting this evening.
To their credit a few commissioners including Budget Committee Chairman Claude Parrott put some cash into the kitty on their way out of the courthouse.
“The fire departments and all emergency services are taking money out of their pockets and putting in a fund to give to the veterans to get their van with,” said Lakeview Volunteer Fire Department firefighter Frankie Davis. “We’re going to teach the County Commission a lesson about patriotism and volunteerism.”
The Fireman’s Association meets at 5 p.m. today at Carters Valley Station 2, and the public is invited to attend to make donations for the veterans.
Stanley Valley Fire Chief Stacy Vaughan, who was recently elected to join the County Commission in September, said after the meeting he’d like to have voted Monday night and provided the final vote needed to restore all contributions to last year’s level.
“It’s obvious that the commissioners don’t realize what the county’s fire and rescue services are up against,” Vaughan said. “Your fire services and your rescue services are essential items that the county needs. The public expects us to be there when they call. We don’t charge the public for coming out, no matter how long we have to stay. We’re an essential item, and we should be funded that way.”
The only contribution recipient to receive a reprieve from cuts Monday was the Hawkins County Library System, which had initially been slated for a $9,400 cut. That cut would have constituted failure to meet state-mandated maintenance of effort and would have resulted in about $98,000 in state funding and materials being cut. More specifically, the state would have cut its $11,000 annual funding and taken away nearly half of the county’s books and videos.
Church Hill Mayor Dennis Deal spoke to commissioners during discussion of the budget and asked them to rescind the library cut. The commission voted 19-0 with one abstention to restore the library funding to last year’s level.