Franklin County is considering making a series of changes to its public safety operations to address trends in volunteerism and apparatus costs.
The board of supervisors was given an overview of all things public safety during its June 18 meeting, from an update on the new Glade Hill fire station to options to make the purchase of new fire trucks and ambulances more affordable. The county’s public safety system is made up of both volunteers and paid career staff.
It used to be that volunteer agencies purchased their own fire trucks and ambulances, said Public Safety Director Billy Ferguson. But as they’ve grown more expensive, that’s become difficult.
Over the past few decades, the county has essentially assumed the capital costs of fire and EMS, with the exception of a few stations, Ferguson said.
Tuesday’s presentation focused on ambulances because they get more use.
The county aims to replace its ambulances once they hit 125,000 miles, Ferguson said. Four ambulances are already at that point, and two more are expected to hit that target this year. He said the fleet is not balanced; some vehicles accrue miles more rapidly than others because of higher call volumes.
The county currently has 17 ambulances. Ferguson said the state recommends one ambulance per 600 calls, which in Franklin County’s case would mean it needs only 12 ambulances.
Ferguson said he didn’t think the county would be able to continue purchasing ambulances and fire trucks the way it has in the past. He provided a number of ways to rein in costs on Tuesday, including:
n Reducing the fleet from 17 to 12, which Ferguson said he hoped would make the county more competitive for some grants
nRotating ambulances between agencies based on call volume
n Entering into lease purchase agreements, which would allow the county to have numerous new ambulances on the road in a given year at a more affordable rate
Supervisors asked how reducing the total number of ambulances would affect service to citizens.
Ferguson said he didn’t think it would. Although some agencies have two ambulances, few have enough volunteers to staff both, he said. Some have already given up their second ambulances, and they are now kept as reserves.
“It doesn’t matter how many trucks you got there if you don’t have the staff to roll them out the door,” Ferguson said.
With only 12 ambulances, there would be nine front line units — one for each station — and three reserves.
No action was taken Tuesday. While the county could move to reduce its fleet this year, obtaining ambulances through lease purchase agreements isn’t likely to go into effect before the next fiscal year, said Interim County Administrator Chris Whitlow. It will be part of budget discussions next spring.
Supervisors were also presented with new strategies for providing funds for the county’s volunteer agencies.
Fire departments are given approximately $21,000 on average in discretionary funding, and each rescue squad $20,000, Ferguson said. But some have begun to question the equity of the system, as call volumes vary drastically among agencies.
“I’ve got some departments out here that are running 400 calls a year, and I’ve got some out here running 30 calls, but they’re all getting the same amount of money,” Ferguson said.
He noted a number of localities have moved to performance-based funding, and suggested Franklin County do something similar. The county could provide an equal amount of core funding, and additional money based on the number of calls each agency runs.
The county also received an update on the new fire station it plans to build in Glade Hill.
Jack Murphy, with the Thompson & Litton engineering firm, estimated the total project cost at somewhere between $3.8 million and $4.5 million.
Those figures leave the county with a funding gap. Whitlow said approximately $3 million has been allocated for the project; $2 million has already been borrowed, and there is about $1 million in a station planning account. Whitlow said he would come back to the board with a funding strategy to address the difference.
Additionally, the board had a brief discussion on capital projects.
Whitlow reminded the board that their financial advisers said the county could take on up to $100 million in debt over the next five years. He said county staff recommended a $20 million contingency, borrowing a maximum of $80 million.
He presented a list of projects the county hopes to complete in the next five years totaling nearly $30 million. The most expensive items were $15 million for phase three of the Summit View Business Park and $8 million for the construction of two new fire/EMS stations.
That leaves $50 million to fund other projects, such as the major renovations proposed at the county middle school and high school.
Supervisors said addressing the outdated HVAC system at the middle school was a top priority. Gills Creek District Supervisor Bob Camicia said the board has a responsibility to maintain its buildings.
“Maintenance issues are not something you put off because you’ve got a philosophical difference,” he said, noting the differing opinions between the supervisors and school board about the scope of the project.
The next step, supervisors said, is identifying the most pressing needs on the list of the capital projects. Then, they can begin to tackle them.