By Chris Gregory, Managing Editor

Ever since this week’s meetings regarding the proposed fire-EMS merger, I’ve seen what I believe to be a lot of misinformation out there about the costs involved.

So I’m going to use this space to try to get some of the facts out there instead.

At April’s County Commission meeting, the group opted to wait to see some budget figures from County Mayor Stephen Chambers on the proposed merger. Those numbers are now out there, as well as the funding mechanisms, and to me it just makes even more sense to make this merger a reality.

At the Emergency Services Committee meeting on Tuesday, the mayor presented two options for a merger of the Volunteer Fire Department and Rescue Squad. Rescue Squad was mentioned as part of this previously but hasn’t been bandied about the way EMS has – but I think adding them is a good idea.

Chris Gregory

Those options on the sheet the mayor handed out ran from $470,170 to $515,510. But there’s more inside those numbers than just raw dollars.

Most of those figures are made up of money already in the budget – namely the fire budget plus the Rescue Squad’s budget. Money that would already have been budgeted anyway. So there’s NO new money there. Those numbers also include $285,000 for a new tanker truck for the fire department. That money was originally allocated two years ago; it just hasn’t been spent yet. That’s a one-time expense (after all, we’re not going to be buying new trucks every year!).

The mayor’s proposal does envision adding 13 current members of the Rescue Squad to the fire department’s ranks. They will need equipment and that is an additional expense – $45,300 based on Mr. Chambers’ projections. Of course, just like previous mayors, the expenses tend to be overestimated when making a budget. So it might not be quite that much.

That equipment is necessary too, as firefighters in attendance pointed out. Some of the current equipment is in rough shape and needs replacing as well. There are seven sets of turnout gear already in the fire budget for next year. Fire rotates out their gear on a regular basis, just like the sheriff rotates patrol cars out every year as they age. It only makes sense.

There is also an estimated $3,700 in utility expenses from having a crew at the fire hall 24/7. That was not in the original plan and perhaps could be tweaked or even eliminated by housing a crew and fire truck at the Rescue Squad building. Those are details best left to the directors of those departments and even if there does turn out to be a 24/7 fire hall staffing, $3,700 isn’t a great deal of money.

There is also a $9,000 cost in adding to salaries of nine EMS workers who would be part of a merged department. That cost was previously disclosed by EMS Director Matt Batey.

On the mayor’s sheet were figures related to a potential expansion of the fire hall to add sleeping quarters, more vehicle bays, etc. Those were estimated at anywhere from $600,000 to $760,000 – but there are no plans to expand the fire hall this year, next year, or in the near future. Since that meeting, I’ve had commissioners mention that a fire hall expansion might be a question best left to public referendum. That’s a terrific idea and I would support that 100 percent.

So we’re talking about $58,000 total in new expenses – not the $500,000 or $1,000,000 figures I’ve seen thrown out there on social media. Thrown out there, I will add, by people who were not even at either meeting where this was explained.

Where will that $58,000 come from? That’s the good news.

At Tuesday’s meeting, Mayor Chambers said he was awaiting a phone meeting with the comptroller’s office to see if the Ambulance Service’s fund balance could be used to pay those costs. As it turns out, yes, they can. It will take some minor tweaking from county commissioners (namely, moving money from one fund into another –something they do all the time anyway) but that’s a minor issue.

By the way, at Thursday’s Budget & Finance meeting the Ambulance Service fund balance was estimated at roughly $627,280 as of the end of April. According to the mayor’s office, the projected balance as of June 30 – the end of the fiscal year – will be $491,854. So funding the cost of equipment needs for new fire-trained personnel should be no big deal.

I mean, if I’ve got $491,000 in the bank I would think nothing of writing a $58,000 check for something I needed.

Combining departments will also make it easier for the department to get grants to pay for equipment and training – something sorely lacking in recent years. That’s not intended as a dig at anyone; but a full-time staff would surely have more time to devote to such matters.

We can get more trained personnel for the fire department, upgrade our equipment and training and get 24/7 staffing at the fire hall. And we can do it without costing a penny more in current taxes. Can anyone give me a reason NOT to take advantage of this opportunity?

Here’s hoping our commissioners and the public will listen to the facts, not the fearmongering. I strongly encourage the County Commission to vote YES on merging the departments during their May 28 meeting.

Chris Gregory is managing editor of The Hartsville Vidette. Reach him at 615-374-3556 or [email protected]