Wilkes Rescue Squad Chief Cole Wyatt presented the squad’s request for additional funding in the Wilkes County government’s fiscal 2021-22 budget during a June 1 public hearing on the spending plan.
No one else commented on the budget during the hearing.
The commissioners are expected to approve the 2021-22 budget during their June 15 meeting.
They agreed to increase the Wilkes Rescue Squad’s appropriation to $195,000 in the new budget during a third budget work session on May 27. This is $5,000 more than what County Manager John Yates included in the draft budget and $25,000 less than what the squad sought.
Also during the May 27 work session, the commissioners approved a 6% across the board pay increase for all Wilkes Sheriff’s Office personnel instead of the 5% pay hike they okayed in the second budget work session on April 12.
This came after Commissioner David Gambill proposed reapportioning the amount of money needed for 5% raises so that some in the sheriff’s office receive larger percentage increases than others to maintain appropriate differences in pay.
The draft budget still includes an across the board 3% pay increase for other county government employees.
During the May 27 work session, the commissioners decided to deny requests for $46,830 from Alleghany Partnership for Children Inc./DANA Services and for $2,754 from United Way of Wilkes for the 2-1-1 information assistance program.
Yates also turned down these requests in the draft budget, saying he didn’t recommend funding any nonprofits not already getting county dollars. DANA and 2-1-1 were the only two such requests.
Commissioners agreed to increase allocations to the Catherine Barber Homeless Shelter in North Wilkesboro by $1,400 for a total of $10,000. They agreed to give Boone-based Hospitality House, a homeless shelter program that serves Wilkes residents, another $2,225 for a total of $6,500.
In the May 27 work session, Wyatt noted that the squad’s appropriation in 2020-21 was $28,000 (about 14%) less than the prior year. County funding of other nonprofits was similarly reduced due to uncertainty over the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on county government.
Wyatt said the squad spent much of 2020-21 assisting Wilkes Emergency Medical Services, including housing an EMS unit to reduce the number of EMS paramedics at their main base and limit COVID-19 risks. He said the squad also spent much time on standby at COVID-19 vaccination clinics to respond in case of severe reactions.
Wyatt said the squad is employing 10 people part-time in shifts to have one person on duty from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. on weekdays and at peak times on Saturdays and Sundays.
He said this started March 1 and resulted in the squad answering more calls, including when fire departments short on personnel don’t respond.
“Our goal going forward is to add a second person during the day” if it can be worked out financially.
Wyatt said lack of available personnel — volunteer or paid — is a problem for the squad and fire departments. Part-time squad employees also have part-time paid positions at one or more fire departments, he explained.
“The people who want to do this kind of thing work at four or five different places.” They’re all in the same pool “and before you know it you’ve run out of people. Everybody is stretched thin,” said Wyatt.
“It’s becoming a critical issue, not just for us but for the whole county.”
He added, “When I took the chief’s position four years ago we were not in the best place and it’s been a fight to get where we are now. I’m pretty proud of my guys and everything we’ve done.”
The squad has been in the same building since the 1970s and soon will need to look at getting a new facility, he said, adding that heavy rescue equipment will soon need to be replaced.
Settle said county funding of the squad has gone up from $135,000 in 2018 to $195,000 this year. He asked about an additional $22,000 the county allocated to the squad for “clot-busting” drugs that went bad and could have been replaced for free. Wyatt said this resulted from notification going to a prior squad member.
Wyatt said much of the equipment had to be replaced in the last four years because it was outdated. “Of course when you stamp fire and rescue on it, it costs 30% more.”
Settle asked where else the squad received funding. Wyatt said letters are sent out each year requesting donations. This resulted in $68,000 last year.
Settle also asked where the rescue squad’s equipment would go if it closed. Wyatt said the squad’s dissolution clause says it would be sold to the highest bidder, “but our current board doesn’t feel that way.” Wyatt said he would like to think it would stay in Wilkes.
Settle said most of squad’s funding comes from Wilkes County government “so I certainly hope it would return to the taxpayers” in Wilkes.
“I would think that that is an item we would like to get worked out in the near future with our attorney,” Tony Triplett. The squad is a private nonprofit.