(TNS) - Although they were rescued in final negotiations, public safety resources in Mount Airy, N.C., — including a highly regarded fire department medical program — were on the critical list as city officials doctored the 2017-2018 municipal budget.
After City Manager Barbara Jones presented the Board of Commissioners with a proposed general fund budget totaling $13.1 million, the board instructed her to reduce that to the $12 million mark.
When Jones returned with a pared-down package, it included noteworthy cuts in the public safety area, such as eliminating a medical-response program operated through the Mount Airy Fire Department.
It began as a first-responder effort in 1997 for cardiac calls and in December 2010 was expanded to included strokes, diabetes-related issues, cuttings/stabbings, overdoses, shootings, drowning/diving accidents, unresponsive persons and other emergencies.
The expanded program, which supplements efforts by the Surry County Emergency Medical Service and Mount Airy Rescue Squad to ensure swift response, was credited with saving seven lives in its first year alone.
The amended budget presented by Jones during a meeting on Friday afternoon called for slashing that program in order to reap an annual savings of $15,100. That and other cuts resulted from a “team effort” to identify possible reductions and actually was offered by Fire Chief Zane Poindexter, he said Tuesday afternoon.
Poindexter explained that in suggesting such changes, he considered the medical program for elimination rather than anything that would affect the core mission of his department: firefighting.
The amended budget also proposed removing two dispatcher positions from the Mount Airy Police Department, which are now vacant, but targeted for filling after the next fiscal year begins on July 1. One is a full-time position and other is part-time, for a total cost of about $51,000.
The scaled-down plan also eliminated proposed raises for all personnel including sworn police officers (who were the only municipal workers given salary increases in the budget ultimately adopted). Slashed as well were the purchases of new police vehicles totaling $93,000 (which was not restored in the final package).
The initial salary and other cuts made by Jones along with department heads and additional adjustments reduced the proposed budget to just under $12 million, a difference of more than $1 million compared to the preliminary proposal.
“We have made reductions and we have met the directive that you gave us,” Jones told council members regarding the trimmed spending plan.
Public safety targeted
However, in rejecting the amended budget presented by the city manager, members of the council were quick to recognize that public safety is a priority and shouldn’t be curtailed.
“I just don’t like the hardship it’s going to place on the police department (and) taking away from the fire department,” Commissioner Shirley Brinkley said of the proposed cuts.
“It’s all concerning public safety,” Commissioner Jim Armbrister said of proposed reductions targeting police and fire services.
“The utmost priority for our city is public safety,” Armbrister added. “I don’t think it’s even a question of cutting these items out.”
Police Chief Dale Watson said at Friday’s meeting, in response to a question from Brinkley, that the loss of dispatchers would affect operations. “I can stagger shifts, but in the end we have to have someone answering the phones,” Watson said.
Armbrister also questioned whether similar reductions had been proposed for other city departments, and both he and Commissioner Jon Cawley honed in on the landscaping operation that covers flower arrangements downtown and plantings at various locations.
“Nobody’s mentioned cutting flowers,” Cawley said when discussing his support for the fire department medical program. “I will not cut $15,100 that’s going to affect public health and keep flowers on Main Street.”
Friday’s budget discussion revealed that the landscaping component, which also includes mowing and other functions, was eyed for a 6-percent reduction.
Cawley also took aim at special appropriations the city makes to organizations such as the Surry Arts Council, for which a 5-percent decrease in funding was included in the 2017-2018 budget finally adopted.
“If we take away all the Surry Arts Council’s money,” he said of the city’s allocation that is $87,500 for the present fiscal year, “they’re not going to close their doors.”
“Even if we don’t give them anything, they are going to more than survive,” Armbrister agreed.
“Nobody will touch certain things here,” Cawley said of municipal funding recipients.
A motion by Cawley that led to the commissioners giving final approval to the budget in a 3-2 vote included putting back the medical-response program and the dispatcher positions, but leaving out the police car acquisitions.
While it will provide salary increases for the 41 sworn officer positions in the police department, the decision did not include raises for the other 130 jobs on the city payroll.
An earlier vote for a budget that would have at least supplied merit pay for others besides police was defeated 3-2.
The final decision also did away with a proposed 5-cent increase in city property taxes, keeping alive a streak of no tax hikes which began in 2008.
The general budget package is expected to total around $12.5 million, but amended figures incorporating last-minute changes by the commissioners have not been released by the city manager.
©2017 The Mount Airy News (Mount Airy, N.C.)
Visit The Mount Airy News (Mount Airy, N.C.) at www.mtairynews.com
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.