Thursday, February 9, 2012

Rolling up the rug

The other budget

Remember all that stuff that got swept under the metaphorical rug of Goochland government? Well, there’s a new bunch in charge and they’ve rolled back the rug and are starting to clean up the mess.

After a brief organizational meeting on January 3, the new supervisors plunged into learning how the county operates by working on the budget for fiscal year 2013, which begins on July 1.

On January 19, they spend a full day learning how departments and agencies funded wholly or in part by the county operate. They continued this endeavor at a work session before their February 7 meeting. (Packets for the sessions are available on the county website under the supervisors’ page.) Please take a look at these packets. They paint a clear picture of the fiscal challenges the county faces. All of these items are paid for with funds other than those generated by real estate taxes, which go to the schools.

For a supposedly affluent county, Goochland spends a lot of money helping economically challenged residents. From Social Services to the health department to the Free Clinic, local folks in need can find the help they need. These services tend to be funded by a myriad of sources so the county does not bear the burden alone.

Many of these agencies leverage county funds to stretch their budgets to help as many people as possible, but the requests for assistance are at historic levels and continue to rise as state and federal governments are also looking for ways to trim their spending.

Perhaps the most poignant item on the February 7 agenda was the fire-rescue presentation, which included replacement and construction for aging stations and an additional $114,867 to fund two additional full-time career providers to ensure that there will be 24/7 EMS coverage in the east end of the county. This will complement round the clock coverage in the western part of Goochland.

Statistics in the presentation indicate that volunteer hours and numbers experienced a dramatic falloff in the past two years. It was quite troubling that no supervisor questioned the reasons for the steep decline.
Unlike other agencies, fire-rescue included in its presentation a proposal to implement a cost recovery program, in essence billing for ambulance service, to provide a revenue stream to offset rising expenses.

Surrounding jurisdictions, except Henrico, have similar policies in place.
Many health insurance programs have a provision to pay for ambulance service. A “soft billing” approach would be used that would not actively pursue payment from the economically challenged. The cost recovery program is somewhat controversial. It will be vitally important to educate the citizens that this measure will not deny anyone service for any reason.
This may well be the death knell of the volunteer fire-rescue serve that has served Goochland proudly and well since 1952.

The demise of a volunteer fire-rescue in Goochland became inevitable with the influx of newcomers who have neither the time nor the inclination to devote the time and commitment necessary to become an EMT or firefighter. It’s all well and good to have a state-of-the-art ambulance, but without a crew, it’s just a pile of metal, glass and rubber. In 2009, the county hired its first career fire-rescue employees to ensure daytime weekday coverage.

Our EMS has a sterling reputation in Virginia for high standards of pre-hospital emergency care, which is the result of a lot of hard work and commitment at all levels of the organization.

Goochland fire-rescue has had a magnificent corps of dedicated volunteers who give freely of their time and talents to save lives and protect property in the county. There just aren’t enough of them to keep up with the demand for service.

Sadly, the days when most volunteers worked in the county for companies that let them leave their jobs to respond to emergencies are long gone.
Volunteer numbers may decline further as some decide that they do not want to become unpaid county employees. Also, charitable contributions to fire-rescue companies may fall off as citizens begin to view fire-rescue as a government function that operates on a fee for service basis.

Most of this is inside baseball, the internal politics of a civic organization. At the end of the day people just want to know that when they dial 911 an ambulance or fire truck will show up quickly with a skilled crew. They do not care who owns the equipment or if the providers are career or volunteer as long as they do the job well.

It is up to the supervisors to provide for the health safety and welfare of the citizens in a fiscally responsible manner. The cost recovery option is one way to meet these goals. The policy must be enacted by a county ordinance, which will require a public hearing and is expected to generate community meetings on the subject throughout the county later this year.

This is one of many hard choices our new board will address in coming months.


Anonymous said...

It makes it mighty tough to recruit new volunteer firefighters and EMTs when the media's portrait of the organization is all doom and gloom.

The truth is that career staffing supplements the volunteers. Most EMS and nearly all fire calls are covered by the volunteers and a few more career staff will not change that. Even if this does change over time, there will be a group of people dedicated to helping their fellow man, so long as they continue to have the support of the fire-rescue administration.

Anonymous said...

Possibly the most stark and maybe the least noted observation here is that without volunteers willing to devote time and energy to learning the job and running the calls, the equipment is useless. Folks may also not be aware that the stations and much of the equipment are owned by the individual departments, not by Goochland County.

The Volunteers also have families, that means birthday parties, ball games, Scout meetings, dance recitals, school events, elderly parents and relatives, houses to clean, yards to mow, etc, etc, not to mention the REAL jobs we have to go to every day and hopefully the occasional weekend at the beach. No one asks that everyone in the county volunteer, not everyone is physically able and some honestly cannot commit the time. Others are already engaged 'to the eyeballs' in some other form of community service...but if you could give up one weekly commitment to help someone you don't know, to ensure the safety of your neighbors, to help make sure that there will be an ambulance or fire truck coming to you when you need it, would you do it?

I think most people in Goochland would be shocked, maybe a little ashamed, to find out how many Fire & Rescue members, particularly in the East End, don't even live in Goochland. Some of us live (and pay taxes) in counties with huge professional Fire & EMS departments. We do this because we like it. The job is satisfying and rewarding. The vast, overwhelming majority of the time the people we go to help are grateful and supportive. Money equips and fuels the trucks, but thank you is what fuels the people.

Much ink is spilled and many flowery words used enshrining the virtues of community service and helping your fellow man...too often it stops at spilled ink and words...completely meaningless without action.

If this small missive has piqued the reader's interest, go to the local firehouse and talk to the people there. Find out what it takes to do this job. Ride along for a shift. If you join us, the county will train and equip you. All you have to commit is the time and the desire, everything else springs from that.