Finalized Accomack Budget Won’t Include 31 Public Safety Positions

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By Carol Vaughn —

The Accomack County Board of Supervisors Monday finalized the fiscal year 2023 county budget to be advertised for public hearing.

The budget does not include funding for 31 new Department of Public Safety positions requested to provide 24-7 coverage for volunteer fire and rescue stations at Melfa, Saxis, Tangier, and Wachapreague.

The volunteers requested help from the county, citing decreasing numbers and the advancing age of volunteers, among other problems they face.

Supervisor Ron Wolff made the motion that the board follow Accomack County Administrator Mike Mason’s recommendation to not include the positions in the budget.

“Throwing money at it is not going to fix it. … They are asking for our help; they are asking for our guidance. We need to make the move now to provide them with the help that they need that can prolong the system as we move forward,” Wolff said, joining other supervisors in calling for a plan to fix the county’s hybrid volunteer-professional fire and rescue system.

The motion was approved 7-2, with Supervisors Donald L. Hart Jr. and Reneta Major voting no.

Hart said, “I disagree because it’s going to take years to get this through. … It has taken over a year just to get Greenback (staff for the Greenbackville fire station), so for Melfa, it’s going to take another year and a half, and then for Saxis, Tangier, or Wachapreague, it’s going to take another year and a half. So you’re talking at least three to four years down the road if we start the ball rolling now.”

He said it is unfair that southern Accomack has only two stations with 24-hour coverage for 15,000 residents, while the northern area has four stations with 24-hour coverage for 15,000 residents.

“The southern end can not wait much longer. Melfa is to the point now of breaking,” Hart said.

He said the entire tax increase would not need to be implemented at once.

Major agreed, saying the positions and tax increase could be phased in.

“We need to recruit everybody,” she said, recommending the board revisit with the school board the idea of a high school EMT program

Supervisor Jackie Phillips said he could not “with a clear conscience” vote for a tax increase for the positions and said the board needs to work with Public Safety Director C. Ray Pruitt and to “find some money so he can retain and recruit.”

Supervisor Harris Phillips said, “We need more coverage, but I can not do this without fixing some of the problems we’ve got.”

He recommended the county consider volunteer incentives, such as tax breaks or stipends.

Harris Phillips and Supervisor Robert Crockett both said the county’s 20-minute response time benchmark for ambulance calls is being met by the departments that requested staff.

“Let’s solve the problem of why people are leaving and why it’s hard to get people to apply — let’s address that first,” Crockett said.

Crockett asked DPS staff to bring the board a recommendation “as far as what we should do with what we have now,” potentially including consolidating stations.

He noted past studies recommended consolidation.

“Let’s have a plan first and then work toward that plan,” Crockett said.

Part of the issue is that ambulances from Accomack at times answer calls in Northampton, Crocket said.

Last year an Accomack ambulance was dispatched to Northampton 252 times and transported to the hospital 127 times, compared to Northampton being dispatched to Accomack 19 times, according to Pruitt.

“I’d like staff, during this planning, to find out what’s going on. Is Northampton … staffed well enough so that we don’t have to cover their area?” Crockett said.

Supervisor Vanessa Johnson said, “Everybody on this board knows that something just needs to be done,” but said she does not support raising taxes at this time.

Supervisor Paul Muhly said past studies made 60 recommendations, adding, “but I don’t think any one of them was ever implemented.”

“The system needs to be fixed,” he said.

Chairman Billy Joe Tarr said, “The heart of everybody in here would like to have an ambulance in every town in this county; however we know with our heads … that we can’t afford it,” he said.

Adding 31 positions won’t help “because it would take all (Pruitt’s) time to try to fill them and not try to fix what is broken,” Tarr said.

The board directed Mason and the finance director to look into volunteer incentives and directed Pruitt to bring to the board a plan “to correct the problems that we have at hand and how we need to go forward,” as Crockett said.

Pruitt said about the idea of station consolidation, “You have to make unfriendly decisions that benefit the people by population density and demand. You place the people where they need to be. … It’s all out there. Everybody knows the answers,” he said.

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