Dan Hust | Democrat
Sullivan County Volunteer Firefighters Association Recording Secretary Chet Smith tells legislators he feels the planned emergency radio upgrades are necessary.
'Give us more'
Story by Dan Hust
MONTICELLO Today at 9:30 a.m., legislators are scheduled to begin revising the proposed 2013 county budget in public session.
The special Management and Budget Committee meetings will continue at the Government Center in Monticello on Dec. 4 and 6 at 9 a.m.
The public will have its chance to weigh in on the $195 million budget on Dec. 4 at 5:30 p.m. and Dec. 11 at noon at the Gov’t. Center.
Meanwhile, the pleas for funding and the difficult choices legislators will have to make have become clearer via several committee meetings this month.
SASD requests budget increase
With an uncertain future but tentatively budgeted to remain at the $60,000 level it currently receives from the county, Sullivan Alliance for Sustainable Development (SASD) pushed for more than double that amount during the November meeting of the Sustainability Policy Committee.
SASD’s proposal calls for $130,000 in 2013 to fund two senior staff and one junior staff positions, all engaged full-time in seeking out ways to improve the county’s energy efficiency through grants, infrastructure upgrades and educational outreach.
The private not-for-profit has contracted with the county for three years and has been a driving force behind the newly-debuted solar array at the Social Services complex in Liberty.
Several board members and supporters of SASD were present to speak on its behalf, arguing that the organization’s efforts can not only help the county realize savings but allow it to better compete for grants with larger counties and even improve its public image, leading to more tourism and a reputation as a leading-edge region.
“Above 60 percent of the American public does believe climate change is a problem,” noted Hankins resident Anne Willard, who is co-chairing the county’s new Climate Action Plan Advisory Board.
“A week ago Monday, you saw the serious problem,” added Legislator Gene Benson, referring to Sandy’s arrival.
SASD Board President Michael Chojnicki acknowledged $130,000 “is a large request, but the return on investment is much greater.”
As proof, SASD made a presentation saying it had secured $379,000 in grants to the county over the past three years, reduced costs of operation, and generated $1.7 million in grants for county residents and businesses.
It’s currently working on windmill projects in Liberty, one of which would serve the Social Services complex.
But County Manager David Fanslau said afterwards that he’s not yet confirmed how much SASD has actually saved the county in real dollars and cents, versus just avoiding costs.
Legislature Chairman Scott Samuelson said SASD will be one part of a rigorous review by legislators of every contracted agency.
“It’s going to be questioned like anything else,” Samuelson acknowledged. “… The budget is just so hard. I don’t know what we’re going to do with any of our contract agencies.”
A large group of firefighters gathered Tuesday to tell the Public Safety Committee that they’re in favor of proceeding with the planned major upgrade of the county’s emergency communications system.
Several speakers related tales of garbled transmissions, dead spots, even situations requiring fire chiefs to leave a scene to make a cellphone call to otherwise-unreachable 911 dispatchers.
“The first issue I heard when I came into the [Rock Hill] fire department [26 years ago] and I still hear today is, ‘When are they going to fix the radio system?’” recalled Sullivan County Volunteer Firefighters Association Recording Secretary Chet Smith. “Now’s our chance to do it.”
“With the new system, everything would be hi-band,” explained Jeffersonville Fire Commissioner Tom Puerschner. “It would be a great setup.”
He and other speakers deemed the lo-band equipment currently in use as antiquated.
Legislators largely agree, having set aside funds to purchase new hi-band frequencies and replace towers.
And despite deep concerns over next year’s taxes and expenditures, the tentative 2013 county budget includes enough money to erect three modern radio towers.
In fact, on Thursday, all nine legislators agreed to spend at least another $2,000 on the law firm hired to negotiate the frequency purchases from Motorola made necessary, said County Attorney Sam Yasgur, because the process has already taken two years longer than anticipated.
“The present public safety radio system was built in the 1950s,” explained Legislator Kathy LaBuda, who said the current plan is to complete the upgrade by 2014, at which point the local fire departments, ambulance corps and police agencies will have to have their new hi-band equipment in place, as well.
A policy on vacancies
A policy will be forthcoming next month pertaining to how the Legislature fills vacancies in 2013 and beyond.
Legislators like Cindy Gieger and Kitty Vetter have been vocal in their concerns over the hire-as-you-go method in current use, arguing that such an approach makes it difficult to gain a big-picture view of the staffing and budget issues.
“Since January, we’ve filled a lot of vacancies,” rued Gieger. “It was a lot of money.”
“You end up filling vacancies ad hoc rather than strategically,” said Legislator Cora Edwards.
She was one of several who proposed a formalized policy long advocated by County Manager David Fanslau to guide the filling of vacancies.
“I think the more notice we have, the better,” she said.
Other legislators, like Alan Sorensen and Jonathan Rouis, pointed out that some vacancies may require filling to maintain services and funding streams.
“It’s kind of hard to have one across-the-board policy,” noted Sorensen.
“Understand there is a head count associated with those priorities,” added Rouis, speaking of the Legislature’s own priorities it will set in the 2013 budget.
Fanslau added that the county must meet staffing requirements in labor union agreements and state certification rules (i.e., for the Adult Care Center), but he promised to have a draft policy ready for legislators to review at the December Executive Committee meeting, currently scheduled for Dec. 13 at 2 p.m.