The Transylvania Times -

County: We Don't Want Squad To Fail


July 17, 2017

On at least two occasions, Dale Whitlock, the Transylvania County Rescue Squad’s chief, has suggested provisions in its contract with the county appeared to be setting the squad up to fail, something commissioners vehemently deny.

Whitlock made comments questioning portions of the contract’s intent during the Board of Commissioners’ meetings on June 26 and this past Tuesday.

On Tuesday, Whitlock sought an amendment to the squad’s contract for the 2017/18 fiscal year.

Specifically, Whitlock sought changes to one of the performance standards in the contract, which called for the squad personnel to respond to any call for assistance 99 percent of the time following the first dispatch from 911 communications.

The squad wanted the call assistance to be lowered to 97 percent for the first dispatch.

County Manager Jaime Laughter said staff noted that last fiscal year, which ended June 30, the Rescue Squad met a 98 percent goal.

Staff was concerned, she said, that a 97 percent goal “would not be a goal for the contract and that the contract should not reflect a decrease from existing measures.”

Whitlock addressed commissioners before they voted on the amendment.

Whitlock said it was explained to the squad that the 99 percent was a “goal,” but he noted that in the contract it doesn’t refer to it as a “goal.”

“It makes it read like a standard,” Whitlock said. “At this time it’s kind of tough for us.”

Whitlock said the squad did its own research on the number of calls it was dispatched to last fiscal year and calculated it responded to 97.8 percent following the first dispatch. He said the 99 percent target was “setting the squad up for failure.”

Whitlock said the squad already has a “big morale issue,” including, he said, losing services the squad used to provide, including extraction and search work on Bracken Mountain.

He said the 2016 “fraud case” has also contributed to declining morale.

Annette Raines, the county’s former tax administrator, faces a felony embezzlement charge and is accused of illegally taking more than $90,000 from the Rescue Squad’s bank accounts, while she acted as its treasurer.

After the embezzlement was discovered, the county entered a modified agreement with the squad for continued funding while the squad worked to implement new control measures.

It was also discovered that the squad had lost its nonprofit status, which was successfully reinstated earlier this year.

Other morale issues, Whitlock said, include the differences in what Brevard Fire Department members are getting paid and the stipend paid to rescue members, which, Whitlock said, “doesn’t come close.”

The squad currently has an active roster of 31 volunteer members and one full-time staff member, Whitlock. The squad had asked for two paid employees, but commissioners declined to fund them in the current budget.

He said the squad responds to double or more calls than any of the fire departments in the county. Whitlock said the squad really needs four or more paid employees to deal with round-the-clock calls, the number of which increase every year.

Commissioner Page Lemel asked if Whitlock would be “more comfortable with inserting the word ‘goal’” into the contract. She said she didn’t understand why the squad would want to go “below” the number they are currently performing at.

Whitlock said the squad would accept the word “goal” being included with the 99 percent target, and Lemel made a motion amending the contract.

Hawkins said he agreed with Lemel’s “solution,” but it doesn’t mean if the squad’s response fell to 90 percent, for example, that would be acceptable.

“We are sitting talking about the difference between 97 percent and 98 percent and then 99 percent,” he said. “I think there are bigger issues here that need to be addressed. I think we, as commissioners, need to provide some guidance to really understand what those issues are and provide guidance, on here is how we want those issues addressed.”

Lemel agreed there are “much larger issues here,” including whether paid services should be part of emergency response or whether volunteer services are a “thing of the past.”

Hawkins also took issue with Whitlock talking about “being set up to fail.”

“Speaking as one commissioner, I don’t want to hear that because that is not happening,” Hawkins said. “And when you say things like that, it really raises red flags with me that there are other things going on here. I can assure you, at least from the commissioners’ perspective — and commissioners direct staff — there is no desire on the commissioners’ part to do that. Speaking as one commissioner, I don’t like that.”

Whitlock replied that he “understands that.”

Commission Chairman Larry Chapman suggested it’s unlikely that if the squad didn’t meet those goals its budget would be cut, but “realistic goals” are needed, he said.

He said the county’s EMS, fire departments and other emergency services are facing budget issues. He said Balsam Grove, for example, is “maxed out” on its fire district tax rate. Chapman said long-term discussions are needed about funding, dual services and equipment, and paid services.

He agreed with Hawkins that no one on the board is “interested” in the rescue squad “failing,” noting the county wouldn’t be providing funding if that were true.

Lemel’s motion to amend the contract was approved unanimously.

The squad will receive $229,000 from the county for the current fiscal year.

The key changes to the contract, according to the county, include:

•Clear deadlines for audit reports and budget requests, along with a commitment to maintain financial controls recommended by the auditor;

•Continued use as a polling location as requested by Board of Elections;

•Clear understanding of how equipment would be handled should the department dissolve;

•Clear understanding of the county’s options if the contract is breached; and

•Clearer expectations of service and service goals.

When reached for comment after the meeting, Whitlock said the squad was not satisfied with the contract.

In other action at last week’s meeting,

•Commissioners rescheduled the property revaluation process. The next revaluation will occur in 2021 and every four years thereafter. The change will aid in project management since state statutes require bond referendums on even years, if they are held, according to Laughter.

•Frank Pearsall, the county’s Veterans Service officer, gave commissioners an update on the expenditures by Veterans Affairs in the county and state. Last fiscal year, which ended June 30, 889 local veterans used the VA hospital in Asheville, an increase of 15 over the previous fiscal year. The figure has slightly increased every year since at least 2008.

In Transylvania County, last fiscal year, the veteran population was 3,353, a decrease of 66 from the previous year. Last fiscal year, U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs’ expenditures in Transylvania County totaled $20,169,000, including roughly $9.7 million in compensation and pensions, and $9.6 million in medical expenses. The expenditure amounts have increased each year since at least 2005, when the total was roughly $5.2 million.

•Commissioners recognized members of various Citizen Advisory Council groups whose terms have ended: Brittany Whitmire, Agricultural Advisory Board; Gus Constantine and Claudia Hawkins, Board of Equalization & Review; Rick Lasater, Betty Sherrill and Lauren Wise, Joint Historic Preservation Commission; Gayla Phillips, Jury Commission; Kelly Burton, Juvenile Crime Prevention Council; Betsy Jordan, Library Board of Trustees; Kristin Armstrong, Susan Cothern, Madelyn Meyer and Linda Novosel, Nursing and Adult Care Home Advisory Committee; Todd Branham, Kathleen Johnson, Sammy Kicklighter and Jan Plemmons, Parks and Recreation Commission; Maureen Copelof and Kris Hovey, Planning Board/Board of Adjustment; Craig Burghardt and Mac Morrow, Transportation Advisory Committee; Ron Schieve, Western Carolina Community Action Board of Directors.

•Lyndsey Westall was appointed to fill the mental health director/designee on the Juvenile Crime Prevention Council. Annie Burgess was appointed to the Parks and Recreation Commission.

Chapman was appointed as the voting delegate to the N.C. Association of County Commissioners’ annual conference.


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