On Monday night, the Surry County Board of Commissioners chose not to amend its budget to assist three local fire stations.
That is perfectly within the board’s rights as the steward of the citizens’ tax dollars. Still, it’s how everything came about that had me and several people in attendance shaking their heads in confusion.
Way simplified, the issue was that C.C. Camp, Skull Camp and Four Way volunteer fire departments would each like to have a single paid employee to man the station during the regular workweek when volunteers are busy holding down a regular job.
Back in the spring, 10 fire departments asked for tax rate increases that would have given them boosts of tens of thousands of dollars. Six of them got partial increases, which still should amount to thousands of dollars this fiscal year.
Unfortunately, for three of the departments that increase isn’t enough to fund a full-time job, so the volunteers came before the county asking for $12,000 each to finish funding the spot.
Based on the statements of the commissioners Monday, it seems that the majority opinion is that the funding issue came up in June and wasn’t going to pass at all without a compromise. The board doesn’t feel it needs to reassess this issue in the same fiscal year, but can take it up again during the next budget workshops in the spring.
That is a completely justifiable stance. The board made a ruling for this fiscal year. Wait until next year. You might not like it, but nobody ever likes to lose a vote, as Commissioner Larry Phillips noted (just before losing the funding vote 3-2).
So why does this leave a bad taste in my mouth? Consider what happened just a little while later.
County Manager Chris Knopf brought up a matter which was not on the agenda for discussion. He apologized to the board for it not being included, but said Surry County Schools considered this an emergency situation.
What was the emergency? Franklin Elementary needed $28,600 to tar and gravel a drive so that parents won’t have to risk driving in mud when using parent pickup for their kids.
A school wants three-fourths as much money as the fire departments were asking for salaries just so that parents won’t have to drive on gravel for a few hundred yards? And this is an emergency situation?
Making matters worse is that the board didn’t bat an eye at dishing $28,600 for this project right after saying that the budget is sacred and shouldn’t be infringed without a really good reason.
The board was basically saying to the fire chiefs that they should figure out in their own budgets how to pay for these full-time posts. C.C. Camp had an estimated budget of $145,350 before the seven-tenths increase in June. Four Way’s expected revenue was $181,200 and Skull Camp $170,000. Somewhere in those budgets is enough for a full-time job and all other expenses.
In the same meeting, however, a school comes asking for money, and the county didn’t tell school officials to make do with what they got in June. Surry County Schools received $9 million for expenses and $1 million for capital outlay. Surely it’s easier to find $28,600 in that $10 million budget than in C.C. Camp’s $145,000.
Then there is the question of necessity. Which sounds more important: someone to man the fire station near your house or spraying some tar on a side drive that has nothing to do with the school building or educating your child?
A year and a half ago the county approved spending $115,000 to buy a small lot next to Flat Rock Elementary. Again, this was to ease traffic of all the moms and dads coming by to pick up their kids rather than have them ride home on the school buses our tax dollars have already paid for.
Commissioners are quick to say that they don’t want to raise taxes and want citizens to get the most for their money. By my calculations, parent pickup at Franklin and Flat Rock has cost me at least $2 extra in taxes, and I didn’t even get a say.
I think of this like plastic surgery. It’s not an appendectomy or open-heart surgery. It is an elective procedure, and Blue Cross probably won’t cover it. If you want to have the surgery, fine, but it comes out of your own pocket.
And finally, since when are the people of Surry County too good to drive a tiny distance on gravel?
When I was growing up in the ’70s and ’80s in White Plains, the pavement ran out on a lot of roads just south of my area. Simpson Mill Road was a heavily used road, but it was still a dirt road right up through my graduation in 1989, and my school bus rode on that bouncy, rutted road twice a day.
The road in front of my house was dirt. My bedroom window opened toward the street, and I knew better than to open it, or the dust would fly into my room when cars passed. That was life.
My dad told me that when he was growing up in the ’50s and ’60s in Westfield the roads were almost exclusively gravel out there (and that my mom wrecked his car learning to drive when she slid on some gravel, but that’s another story).
Now we are so spoiled that driving around the school on a little gravel is a travesty that requires $28,600?
I want my $2 back.
Or better yet, give it to my local White Plains Volunteer Fire Department. Those guys need it more than some paving company.
Jeff is the news editor and can be reached at 415-4692.