Councilwoman Pam Bucklew during Thursday night's budget discussion.

City council passes $5 million budget after heated discussion about new hires

BUCKHANNON – Buckhannon City Council on Thursday approved its largest general fund budget ever thanks to the first full year of 1 percent sales tax.

The final vote came after a back-and-forth discussion about a hot topic — how to pay for three new full-time firefighters.

City finance and administrative director Amberle Jenkins presented a $5.6 million budget to council, which amounted to about $500,000 more than the 2020-2021 fiscal year budget, set at about $5.1 million when it was approved in March 2020.

The initial budget included about $200,000 in expected carryover funds that would pay for three new full-time firefighters for one year. Council has been meeting for weeks and working with the Upshur County Commission to try and find a long-term funding source for the new firefighters.

Because nearly the half the calls the Buckhannon Fire Department responds to are outside city limits, council has been considering ways to increase the department’s funding that do not rely solely on city tax dollars. Options under discussion include implementing a first-due fire fee or increasing the county fire fee.

Jenkins explained the city had been reimbursed about $800,000 from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act. Most of that had been used, but Jenkins said she’d budgeted $200,000 of the carryover to pay for the firefighters for the 2022 fiscal year, which begins July 1, 2021 and ends June 20, 2022.

City finance and administrative director Amberle Jenkins at Thursday’s meeting

“We believe we will have a carryover. It’s general fund money, it’s not new CARES Act money, and I just wanted to clarify that,” Jenkins said.

City and county budgets are required by law to be balanced and are due to the West Virginia State Auditor’s Office by March 28.

Councilman CJ Rylands suggested council hold off on hiring new firefighters until city officials looked into brand new grant opportunities provided in the American Rescue Plan signed into law last Friday, which could save the city more than half a million dollars.

According to information on Sen. Joe Manchin’s website, the American Rescue Act will supply $100 million in new funding to the Assistance to Firefighters and $200 million to the SAFER (Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response) grant programs. The information says firefighters and first responders “are also eligible for support under state and local government funds.”

The city has applied for the SAFER grant program – which, if awarded, pays for the salaries of three firefighters for three years – twice but has been rejected both times.

Rylands suggested city officials give it another chance.

“If we have the opportunity to apply for a SAFER grant for three firemen for three years, that’s potentially $600,000 in grant money that we could [get],” Rylands said. “It’s not going to cost us any money, [but] it’s going to take us some time to apply for. If we go ahead and hire these [firefighters] and pay for them out of the general fund, which is where this money is, we can’t then go ask for reimbursement for something we’ve already done, so it seems like why not roll the dice and see if the third time’s the charm and we get this $600,000 which covers the payment of these firemen for three years.”

Councilman Dave Thomas noted the Buckhannon Fire Chief J.B. Kimble would like to hire the new firefighters by July 1, but said Rylands’s point merited consideration.

“I think CJ is making a good point if it’s only going to be a two-to-three month delay,” Thomas said. “I’m not sure … the feds are going to be giving us grant money when they’re giving us all this other money, but I think it’s a good comment and we ought to give it serious consideration.”

Kimble told council the deadline for SAFER grants for the upcoming year was in early March. It’s not clear when the additional funding included in last week’s bill will be awarded.

Councilwoman Pam Bucklew then made a motion to approve the proposed 2021-2022 $5.6 million-dollar budget as it was, with the $200,000 for the new firefighters coming from the general fund for the next year while other funding sources are explored.

“I think it’s our responsibility to take care of emergency services in this community,” she said. “The firefighters have shown us year after year how many [fewer] volunteers they have and how much more responsibility they have … and some of that has to do with drugs. They’ve proven to us that it is needed, and I think it’s time we step up and give them what they feel is needed for this community.”

Councilman Jack Reger, who participated via teleconference, seconded the motion.

Thomas countered that it would be “huge mistake” to use general fund money now when the city might be awarded grant funding for three years.

“I am not against hiring the new firefighters, but I am against saying we should do it two-to-three months early when we might have an opportunity to receive a $600,000 grant,” Thomas said. “I am still very convinced that at some point in time, we’re going to have to have a first due fee. I don’t know what that amount’s going to be, but if we’re required to go with our full-time firefighters to the first due area, the county has some responsibility. The county hasn’t increased their fire fee for [20] years, so this is why we’re in this pickle right now.”

Thomas said the city had a fiduciary responsibility to press pause.

“I think [the funding in the American Rescue Act] is an opportunity for us, and I think we’d be remiss from a fiduciary responsibility [standpoint] not to wait at least 30 days to make a decision about how we’re going to fund it,” he said.

Bucklew asked, “So, if we don’t get the grant, that means we don’t hire the fireman?”

Thomas said if the grant does not happen, the city could then look at the other funding options.

“I’m not saying we don’t do it,” Thomas replied. “I am for hiring three additional firefighters, but at the same time, I think it’s absolutely imperative that we initiate a first due fee at some point in time.”

City recorder Randy Sanders

City recorder Randy Sanders urged council members to remain level-headed.

“We’re still learning what’s in the American Recovery Act,” he said. “Let’s take the emotions out of it. Let’s continue to use a steady hand on our fiduciary responsibility and take the next couple of weeks and study it and ask the right questions and see if there’s a chance to get that SAFER grant or to get those funds lined up an execute it that way if it’s possible.”

Sanders said he feels council as a whole supports hiring new firefighters, even if there are disagreements about how to fund them.

“If it’s not possible, then we go back to this plan,” he said. “I think it’s council’s will that we’re going to get those three firemen in there one way or the other, but I think we just need to be steady, calm, cool and collected about it and take our chances and do our research and see if there’s another way to go about it.”

Bucklew was the sole member of council to vote in support of passing the budget with the $200,000 for new firefighters; the rest of council, including Reger, voted against including the funding.

Thomas subsequently made a motion to approve the budget as presented without the $200,000 for hiring the three career firefighters, which was seconded by councilwoman Mary Albaugh and passed 5-1, with Bucklew voting against it.

That brought council’s budget down to $5.4 million or exactly $5,433,106 for the 2021-2022 fiscal year.

Bucklew said she had a message for the rest of council.

“All I want to say is I hope everyone stands behind what they say that, yes they do want the three firemen,” she said. “It’s needed in this community.”

Budget highlights Jenkins presented before the vote included:

  • A 30-cents per hour across-the-board raise for all full-time employees
  • Merit-based raises for police officers
  • $120,000 allocated to replace city hall’s ailing roof
  • $137,800 for police department capital expenses and $17,000 for Volunteers in Police Service
  • $140,938 for fire department capital expenses, including payments for the new fire truck, expected to arrive after July 1
  • $135,000 to Consolidated Public Works Board for the upkeep of city parks, supplementing horticulture salaries and contracting out services for cemeteries
  • $130,000 for Street Department projects
  • $282,000 to paving projects
  • $117,300 for a monthly property payment on the new Street Department headquarters on Mud Lick Road
  • $38,400 in the Stockert Youth & Community Center budget for a possible new gymnasium/auditorium building payment

The breakdown of the budget, prior to the removal of the $200,000, was:

  • 41.5 percent to public safety (fire and police departments)
  • 29.4 percent dedicated to the Streets Department
  • 9.1 percent allocated to administration
  • 6.7 percent allocated to SYCC
  • Other departments in budget were allocated less than 3 percent each, and those included housing, stormwater, the Colonial theatre, parks, horticulture and cemetery

Funding for outside entities included (not a complete list):

  • $40,000 to Upshur County Economic Development Authority
  • $10,000 to Country Roads Transit
  • $5,000 to Upshur-Buckhannon Health Department
  • $15,000 to the Buckhannon-Upshur Airport Authority

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