Fire funds for VFDs cut by Commission

By Larry Stanford

February 15, 2014

The Yatesville Volunteer Fire Department has received word from Upson County that the county will no longer be sending a monthly check. Yatesville and the other five volunteer fire departments in the county, along with the Thomaston Fire Department, have been receiving a $500 check each month from the county to assist in expenses for the departments, in exchange for them providing fire coverage to the county, which does not have its own paid department.

Yatesville City Councilman Ronnie Riggins, who is also the Yatesville VFD Chief, advised the council of this new development at their February 11 council meeting.

“Every month, we always get a check from the county,” said Riggins. “I have a letter from the Upson County Board of Commissioners. It says: ‘This letter is to inform you that due to county budget cuts, your monthly amount was cut. Effective January 1, 2014, you will no longer receive a monthly payment.’ As far as I understand, every one of the volunteer fire departments got one of these letters.”

Mayor Cecil Moncried noted that District 3 County Commissioner Ralph Ellington had called him. Ellington usually attends Yatesville council meetings, but had to go to Griffin for a meeting Monday night. Moncrief said he mentioned the county’s letter to Ellington and said the commissioner told him the county will fund the departments out of the 2011 Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax (SPLOST) fund. Among the items to be funded by the SPLOST is $500,000 earmarked for ‘Fire Equipment.’

“But I said the same thing Ronnie just said, the letter says we will receive no funding,” Moncrief said, continuing to relate his conversation with Ellington. “It didn’t say anything about SPLOST; it said no funding. But he said there were three commissioners that wanted it and two that didn’t. I’m assuming this will be discussed tomorrow night. I’m a little upset that there were two commissioners here at the last meeting (Commissioners Ellington and Lorenzo White), and they never said a word about it.”

Previously, the county was giving each VFD $500 a month for a total of $6,000 a year. Riggins said they are not unappreciative of the donation, but that $500 is not nearly enough to fund a fire department.

“Pretty much most of the time, $500 pays your fuel costs a month,” said Riggins. That’s about all it pays for. We don’t get funds from any other source. A set of turnout gear is $3,500.

Billy Lee, a volunteer with the Yatesville VFD who attended the council meeting, said the departments need more volunteers, but when they get them, they can’t dress them in firefighting gear. He added that the county is getting one heck of a deal for the price they pay to the VFDs.

“You stop and think,” Lee said, “even the City of Thomaston receives the $6,000 a year, because they have a volunteer part. For the seven departments, that comes to a total of $42,000. That is the average salary of one paid firefighter – I’m not talking about in Thomaston – and Upson County is getting seven departments and no telling how many trucks and how many volunteers. And besides fire calls, look at the money we’re saving them by going out and cutting trees out of the road, because we’re the first ones contacted before Public Works is, because they don’t have to pay us overtime. I’m not complaining about what I do, but it is upsetting when you get slapped in the face with this letter.”

Riggins agreed, adding that he felt the letter from the county voided any previous agreement they had in place.

“We had a written agreement with the county for the $500 a month. A year ago they claimed they couldn’t give us this $500 without a written agreement, which wasn’t a big deal. But it basically said that we were going to continue to do what we do for $500 a month. Well, this letter right here, in my view, voided that contract. The county has decided they’re not going to honor it anymore.

“What concerns me is Georgia state code – 25-3-5 – says that municipal fire departments, that’s what we are, cannot operate in the unincorporated areas of the county, except by written or oral contract with the county. I take this to mean that it would be illegal for us to go to a fire outside city limits without a contract, which we do not have right now because of this letter.

“Don’t take it wrong, we’re not going to do that. If we get a call, we’re going to the fire. But basically it is illegal for us to do that without a written or oral contract.

“If they have other plans for other fire departments, it would have been nice of them to have told us that rather than just sending a letter out saying we’re not going to get any more money. It just makes me ill.”

Riggins went on to commiserate that the same thing is happening all over the state and nation, but he doesn’t see why it is happening here, especially since the commissioners approved a $14 million budget in December.

“It’s not just happening in Upson County. You see it happening in big towns and small towns. It seems like the officials have their priorities mixed up,” Riggins said. “To me, the number one priority should be the safety and well being of your citizens. Then if you have the funds to do stuff, then you go looking at the ‘nice to have’ things. But the number one priority should be the safety and well being of your people. But you see it happening everywhere. They start having budget talks and the first thing they want to do is cut the budget of the law enforcement or the fire department or the ambulance service. Sometimes it makes sense, like when you can go from $600,000 to $300,000 for ambulance service. But when the entire county is getting fire protection services for a total of $42,000 a year, and the county budget is $14 million, there is no way in the world you can convince me that you couldn’t have sat down and found $42,000 somewhere out of $14 million.”

Larry Stanford may be reached at 706-647-5414 or on Twitter @LarryStanford7.