From left, councilman Jack Reger and councilman CJ Rylands discuss the proposed hiring of three new career firefighters at city council's July 1 meeting.

Unable to agree on hiring firefighters, city sets meeting for July 8

BUCKHANNON – Buckhannon City Council will meet in special session this week to hash out whether they plan to hire three additional career firefighters and if so, how those new hires will be funded.

Thursday’s meeting, set for 9 a.m. in city hall, will be the second special session this calendar year devoted to discussing the proposed hiring of the three full-time firefighters.

Buckhannon Fire Chief J.B. Kimble originally requested funding for the additional staffing in his budget proposal in February 2021, telling council that adding three paid staff members to the current six – not including Kimble – would enable the department to schedule three firefighters per shift most of the time. Kimble says that staffing level is necessary for the department to meet minimum state and national safety protocols for fighting structure fires. He has also said increasing staffing will enable the department to continue to provide adequate fire protection in the city and county, as the ranks of volunteer firefighters dwindle not just in West Virginia, but nationwide.

The debate has been fraught with tension over the past four months, particularly over how to pay for the new hires, which city finance and administrative director Amberle Jenkins has calculated will cost about $187,000 annually, bringing the fire department’s budget up to about $1 million.

In fact, the July 8 special meeting was scheduled on the heels of the most recent flare-up, which occurred during council’s regular meeting last Thursday, July 1.

That discussion occurred when Jenkins, the finance director, had presented council with a proposed budget revision for the city’s general fund for fiscal year 2021-2022, which began July 1. The purpose of the budget revision was to bring the city’s actual balance on hand in line with what the city had estimated it would have on hand when budgets were due to the West Virginia State Auditor’s Office in March.

City finance and administrative director Amberle Jenkins at council’s July 1 meeting. Also pictured in the background is Buckhannon Fire Chief J.B. Kimble.

Jenkins said the revision was one of the largest the city has ever had due to revenue from the city’s 1 percent sales tax and because of the influx of federal funds from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act or CARES Act. In March, the city had estimated that at the end of the 2020-2021 fiscal year June 30, 2021, the general fund budget would be $704,910, but in actuality, it amounted about $1.3 million with sales tax revenue and CARES Act funding. The difference between estimated and actual – of approximately $601,135 – means that money needs to be reallocated to other areas within the general fund, Jenkins explained.

“What I did was I went through my notes and anything council had mentioned [during budget talks in February and March] that they might be interested in contributing to, I put it in [this budget revision] … and there were a couple things that came up,” she said. “This is for council’s consideration. I just want to make it clear that if you do not want to approve it tonight, you have one more chance [to alter the proposed budget revision].”

General fund budget revisions are due to the state by July 30, so council would have another opportunity at its July 15 meeting to pass the budget revision.

One of a series of line items was the proposed addition of $186,530 for the hiring of three entry-level firefighters, which included salaries and benefits. The revision would have increased the total amount budgeted for the fire department’s salaries and benefits from $591,800 (with six career firefighters and a chief) to $778,330 (nine career firefighters plus a chief), about a 31.5 percent increase.

Jenkins said she had added it into the budget revision because even though council hadn’t settled on a funding source, most members had indicated they wanted to add the new hires.

Councilman CJ Rylands asked why the money was allocated when council hadn’t reached an official decision on hiring the first responders.

“Why are we kind of putting the cart before the horse here? The hiring of three firemen is an official action of this council, and the public deserves to be notified of any decisions like this, and the conversation needs to be held in public instead of obscured in a budget revision,” Rylands said. “I don’t get this.”

Jenkins said she’d gotten the impression that all council members were on board with the new hires, but she would remove it from the revision.

Rylands and councilman David Thomas have each stated at several meetings that they don’t want to hire the firefighters until council members agree on a long-term funding source. Although Buckhannon mayor Robbie Skinner has been a proponent of using sales tax revenue, Rylands and Thomas have said the city’s sales tax isn’t reliable and that a dedicated, stable revenue source – such as an increase in the city fire fee – ought to be established.

“I’m not going to agree to hire them until we have an increase in the [city] fire fee and have a first due [fee], and my impression was the majority of city council thought we needed to have an increase in the fire fee and the first due [fee],” Thomas said.

Councilman Jack Reger said he believed that council was in agreement that if the new hires’ salaries couldn’t be funded through grant money made available in the 2021 American Rescue Plan, council would pay for the new hires with general fund money.

“So, my understanding was, since we [weren’t eligible for grant funding], we had all pretty much agreed as a council to the three firemen,” Reger said.

“Absolutely not,” Thomas replied, reiterating that he will not support the hires without a raise in city fire fee and/or the implementation of a first due fee.

Rylands said council had not come to a consensus on the additional staffing which would “add, over 10 years, with inflation, possibly $2 million to the budget without a public disclosure that we’re going to have this conversation.”

Councilwoman Pam Bucklew said Jenkins was just doing her job by including the money $187,000 in the budget revision.

“That’s her job to put it in there,” Bucklew told Rylands.

City recorder Randy Sanders said council had dropped the ball by not following up after the May 17 special session.

From left are city recorder Randy Sanders, mayor Robbie Skinner and Reger.

“I want to interject; I think where we have fallen down is when we didn’t follow up with those meetings,” Sanders said. “We had a very robust and good meeting (May 17) and I’ll take as much blame as anyone else in here, but we didn’t schedule a follow-up meeting.”

Several council members, including Sanders and councilwoman Mary Albaugh, said they wanted Skinner to call for a follow-up special meeting.

“Let’s move on,” Skinner said.

Council discussed a handful of other changes to the general fund budget revision but ultimately decided not to vote on it.

Jenkins said she would make suggested changes and present a draft of the revision to council prior to its July 15 meeting.

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