It was a victory for fire chiefs and volunteer firefighters who lobbied against a planned reduction of $3,000 per department. Last year, each of the seven departments received grants of $4,500 each.
"I've been running my department on hand-me-downs for four years," Belfast Fire Chief Ricky Cozart said. "It's about worn out. I'm not going to risk my firefighters. If we can't get equipment, we won't go."
Cozart's point was made during a public hearing on the county's 2009-10 budget, including a list of donations to non-profit organizations. During the special-called meeting to adopt the budget, Commissioner Scottie Poarch sought to add the volunteer departments to that list of non-profit agencies.
"Is there no possible way to add $21,000 to this?" Poarch asked. "They didn't know this (cut to grants) was going to happen to them. It's a very important service."
Commissioner Mickey King, chairman of the budget committee, explained budget constraints, but Poarch countered; "If you have a fire, you want somebody to respond."
Poarch then moved to add $21,000 to restore fire department grants back up to $4,500 each. Commissioner Rocky Bowden seconded the motion "for the sake of discussion."
Commissioner Larry McKnight supported Poarch's idea, but asked about amending the budget later.
King offered the way to fund the additional spending: Cut commissioners' pay by 30 percent and move that money to the fire departments. Commissioner Mary Ann Neill seconded the motion that King limited to the budget that's to end June 30, 2010.
The vote was unanimous.
Cutting 30 percent from the commissioners' pay will raise approximately $23,000, some $2,000 more than what's needed to restore the matching grants for the fire departments.
Funds had been available from the county, as revealed by discussion during the public hearing when federal funding was mentioned.
Commissioners asked the fire chiefs about other sources of funding since they'd made cuts throughout the budget. The chiefs and others reported federal grants require matching funds when awards are to be made.
"We applied for grants this year," Five Points Fire Chief L.L. McClure said. "But because we didn't have the match, we had to turn it down."
Commissioner Seth Warf said, "If there's any way a fire department could get a grant like that, I think anybody here would like to know."
Confirming that was Commissioner Jimmy Stitt, chairman of the county's Economic and Community Development/Tourism Committee that administers money received from the hotel-motel room tax.
If fire departments approached that committee, typically referred to as the ECD/Tourism Committee, then the panel could decide that money appropriated to a fire department was for a community development project.
Stitt and Commissioner Wilford "Spider" Wentzel conferred with several chiefs after the meeting on what's needed and how that could be accommodated.