By Carol Vaughn —
Accomack’s Board of Supervisors will continue discussing the 2023 budget Monday, Feb. 28, at 5 p.m., in Accomac, after hearing from 15 people at a town hall meeting Wednesday.
There will be no public comment at Monday’s session.
The town hall was to hear public opinion about proposals to add 36 positions to address public safety, including 31 to provide 24-7 fire and emergency medical services from volunteer fire stations in Melfa, Saxis, Tangier, and Wachapreague.
Some speakers spoke against raising taxes to pay for the positions, while volunteer firefighters warned of an aging volunteer force and difficulty hiring and retaining paid EMTs. They urged the board to be proactive in fixing what several called a broken system. Some offered the prospect of sharing profits from ambulance call payments with the county.
Four more sheriff’s deputies and a prosecutor in the commonwealth attorney office also are included in the budget.
The cost for the additional fire and EMS employees is $2.4 million, including $407,000 for support personnel, according to Accomack Administrator Mike Mason.
That would require a 7.5 cent increase in the real estate tax rate, phased in over three years, and enactment of a 40-cent-per-pack cigarette tax.
An 8.75 cent increase in the real estate tax would be needed without the cigarette tax.
That means the owner of property valued at $150,000 would pay $1,125 in taxes by 2024, compared to $1,002 this year without the new positions.
The annual cost of additional deputies to address a spike in violent crime and balance the existing workload is $219,334.
The cost for a prosecutor is $76,468.
Fire chiefs or presidents from Melfa, Saxis, Wachapreague, and Bloxom spoke at the meeting and Tangier’s volunteer fire company sent a written statement.
Other speakers included business owners, retirees, and a former county supervisor, among others.
Brandon Patterson, Melfa fire chief, recalled the station was “a powerhouse” when he joined in 2008.
Compared to 35 active members then, the company now has seven.
“It’s 2022 and times have changed a lot between the pandemic and volunteers,” he said, noting Melfa previously turned down 24-7 staffing because volunteers thought other stations needed help more.
Melfa’s daytime staff is pulled to fill positions at other stations, Patterson said.
Patterson noted the advancing age of volunteers.
“It’s sad to say, we’re the last of a dying breed,” he said, noting the extensive time and effort to train and respond to calls.
“It’s a second full-time job, but we’re doing it for free,” he said.
Patterson said Melfa ranked fourth in calls last month, responding to 68 EMS calls and more than 30 fire calls.
The district includes Eastern Shore Community College, three schools, the airport and industrial park, Eastern Shore Yacht & Country Club, and businesses, Patterson said.
“After 72 years and (being one of) the last two EMS stations to be staffed, Melfa fire and rescue company needs help,” he said, adding that, even though the station currently is meeting the county mandated response time, “We’re not going to be able to do it for much longer.”
Later, Patterson said Melfa had received five ambulance calls since the meeting began.
Patterson said Melfa is prepared to offer profit sharing with the county to help offset the cost of personnel.
Saxis Volunteer Fire Department president Aubrey Justice said while Saxis also is meeting the standard, “Our ambulance is getting out with a 71-year-old man who runs 99% of our calls” and the main ambulance driver is 60.
“So it’s going to come a time … when that 71-year-old and this 60-year-old are going to go, you know what, age has caught up with me,” he said.
Justice said the station has not had daytime staff it is supposed to have for two years.
David Fluhart, Wachapreague Volunteer Fire Company president, said Accomack needs to come up with incentives to retain volunteers and needs to institute a firefighter/EMT training program in high schools.
“Our director of public safety, C. Ray Pruitt, said at a budget work session on Feb. 10 that the fire and EMS system in Accomack County is broken. I agree with Mr. Pruitt’s assessment. The alarm has been sounded. The county is having trouble hiring and retaining DPS fire medics and the volunteer fire companies are having trouble finding new, younger volunteer firefighters.”
Still, he said volunteers save the county a tremendous amount of money.
“County resources and the volunteer stations need to work together to try to build the volunteer system,” he said.
He asked the board to fund the positions.
Sean Fate, Wachapreague Volunteer Fire Company’s chief, also said the county need to be proactive, as Wachapreague was when it moved its ambulance to Painter.
He favors a high school EMT program, volunteer incentives, and possibly station consolidation.
Wachapreague Mayor Fred Janci also favored a school program and said while “nobody wants their taxes raised … It’s something that has to be looked at.”
“Your system is broken. You have three reports sitting on yourselves telling you your system is broken,” said Glenn Smith, of Onancock, a volunteer with Tasley Volunteer Fire Company. He favors funding the positions.
Residents including Karen Gravelle, of Onancock, Anita Johnson, of Accomac, Ace Seybolt, of Mappsville, John Schneider, of New Church, and Barry McGrogan, of Captains Cove, spoke of concerns about raising taxes.
Gravelle said with a tax increase, “It will be even harder to attract teachers; it will be harder to retain young doctors.”
McGrogan said while residents will appreciate having additional EMTs when they have an emergency, county officials need to look at other solutions besides raising taxes, including cutting expenses.
Johnson said “People can’t pay their taxes now. I think the timing is bad.”
Seybolt said the increase in EMT staff “sounds like a good idea,” but said, “It’s the old question, how do you pay for it?”
He asked whether the county has considered ideas such as cross-training deputies as EMTs or paying volunteer firefighters when they are at the scene of an emergency, as Northampton does.
“Those are two things that might stretch the dollars that we have further,” he said.
Additionally, Seybolt said, “The county has to have a long awaited discussion with the fire departments that no one particularly wants. I think maybe some of the boundaries need to be changed.”
Before raising taxes, a conversation about revenue sharing should be had, Seybolt said.
Former supervisor Grayson Chesser urged supervisors to “think long and hard before you go against your county administrator’s recommendations.”
Mason included in the budget a plan to pay for additional EMS staff in Saxis, Melfa, and Tangier, but said he does not support that initiative.
“How are you going to hire 31 more people when you can’t fill the vacancies that you have?” Chesser said, adding, “We have a lot of poor people here. …Even any increase hurts them.”
J. R. Pikulski, owner of Dixieland in New Church, said estimated revenue from the proposed cigarette tax “won’t happen” because people who travel across the state line from Maryland to purchase cigarettes now likely won’t come with a lower difference in their total price for a carton of cigarettes. Additionally, Accomack residents likely will buy cigarettes in Northampton if a tax is imposed, he said.
Supervisor Reneta Major asked volunteer departments to include minorities in recruiting efforts.
Supervisor Paul Muhly said that is one reason for the proposed EMT curriculum in public schools.
“If we can generate interest and enthusiasm in our high schools … they will respond. … It’s a terrific opportunity for young people. … We just have to get it done,” he said.
Supervisor Ron Wolff said, “We’ve got a big problem and I think we know how to solve it but nobody wants to take that first step.”
Steps recommended in past studies include consolidating fire departments and revenue sharing with the volunteer departments, among other recommendations.
“We can’t keep throwing money at the problem without trying to fix it,” Wolff said, adding, “…We need to put on our big boy pants and take those recommendations and begin to act on them to solve the problem.”