In a 3-1 vote Tuesday evening, the Upson County Board of Commissioners passed a motion to reinstate the monthly $500 donation made to the six volunteer fire departments in the community, as well as making the funding retroactive back to January 1 of this year. Each of the departments had received a letter earlier this month which stated due to budget cuts the county would no longer be giving any funding to the volunteer fire departments, which equaled out to a total of $42,000 a year. Prior to calling for the vote, the board heard from several concerned citizens who pleaded with the commissioners to find a way to continue with the funding and to offer more if any way possible.
Theresa Booker spoke to the board on the matter, noting that she was the spouse of a volunteer firefighter. She stated the volunteers spend not only their time, but also their own money to help keep the insurance rates down for everyone in the county, since there is not a county fire department. Booker also noted that during the past ice storm, the volunteers worked to help with keep the roads clear and put in over $16,000 worth of their time and equipment, at no cost to the county.
“I really plead and beg the commissioners to not only look into reinstating the $42,000, but also look at ways to fully fund,” said Booker. “That $42,000 was only one-third of one percent of the budget, a tiny, tiny bit.”
Stan Elliott also addressed the board, noting the county needs to do more to help the volunteers.
“Gentlemen, the $42,000 that y’all are giving the fire departments, it is not nearly enough,” said Elliott, who lives in the Thurston area of the county. “These volunteers need all the help they can get; for years everyone has struggled. As far as this deal that raises its’ head about every five years about a county-wide paid fire department, we don’t have the tax base. The $42,000 is not a drop in the bucket; in fact it ought to be $100,000 (what the county gives to county departments). Everything that is being done for the volunteers should keep being done.”
Commissioners Lorenzo Wilder and Ralph Ellington had stated at the board meeting held on February 11 that they would like to find a way to continue funding the department because they felt it was the least the county could do in return for the service they receive. After hearing from the community Tuesday evening, Wilder made a motion to amend the 2014 budget to provide funding for the six volunteer fire departments which include Lincoln Park, Thurston, Salem, Northside, Rock Hill and Yatesville. Each department will receive a check for $500 a month, and the payments will be made retroactive back to January 1. Previously, the City of Thomaston Fire Department had also been receiving a check to help fund the department, but County Manager Jim Wheeless noted they had asked not to be reinstated with the other departments. The motion was seconded by Commissioner Ralph Ellington and passed with a 3-1 vote, with Chairman Blackston casting the only ‘no’ vote (Commissioner Frank Spraggins was not present at the meeting).
Chairman Blackston stated he knows the volunteers think he is against them, but said that he is not and thanked them for what they do. He stated his reason for voting no on the matter was due to the fact the board had worked hard to get the 2014 budget balanced since they had gone so far over in previous years and he did not want to change that.
At the close of the meeting, Commissioner Wilder stated he wanted to thank each of the volunteers for their patience during the past few months.
“I want to thank all the volunteers for what you do,” said Wilder. “I want to thank you for your patience during this process. I certainly hope the delay has not caused you too much of a hardship. We do look forward to continuing to work with you and the service you provide.”
Commissioner Ellington echoed Wilder’s comments and added during the budget process they were under the impression the departments could be funded from the SPLOST money.
“When we did the budget we were under the impression that we could fund the volunteer fire departments through the SPLOST money that was set aside (for the fire departments),” said Ellington. “We found out legally we could not do that. SPLOST money is established only for capital outlay projects-that’s the way it is written and the way the tax payers of Upson County voted on it. When we found out that information was concrete-that is what led up to the meeting tonight. Again I apologize for any delays that may have been caused, but you’ve got our support.”
Ashley Biles can be reached by calling 706-647-5414 or on Twitter @AshleyBiles1