By Tom Joyce
April 10, 2013
Faced with a potential revenue loss of more than $1 million due to actions in Raleigh, Mount Airy officials are scrutinizing requests from four local agencies that normally receive city funding.
Those requests, totaling $222,650 for the next fiscal year beginning on July 1, are from the Mount Airy Rescue Squad, Mount Airy Museum of Regional History, Mount Airy Public Library and Surry Arts Council.
The museum and arts council are seeking the same sums as the present budget year, $10,000 and $87,500, respectively, while library officials are asking for an increase of $1,000 from the $101,650 allocated for 2012-2013. The rescue squad is requesting the largest hike percentage-wise, from the present $5,000 annually to $22,500 for next year.
City Manager Barbara Jones, who attended Tuesday’s committee meeting, said changes in Raleigh involving such sources as franchise taxes, privilege licenses and others could mean less allocations to localities for the next fiscal year.
“When all that is said and done, it could be that we’re $1.2 million short in revenue,” Jones said in comparison to levels for this fiscal year.
“That would be huge for Mount Airy.”
Squad Chief Makes Case
As part of municipal budget deliberations, representatives of all four agencies made presentations Tuesday morning before the Finance Committee of the Mount Airy Board of Commissioners. It is composed of commissioners Jon Cawley and Steve Yokeley, who will make recommendations to the full board regarding the special agency funding to the organizations.
One of the more impassioned presentations Tuesday was by Chad Hutchens, chief of the Mount Airy Rescue Squad, who said the increase it’s requesting is needed to support the many services the squad provides.
“Too many people don’t understand all that we do,” said Hutchens. Even a member of one of the squad’s sister agencies recently expressed a lack of knowledge of that, he said.
Most citizens are aware that the squad backs up the Surry County Emergency Medical Service on calls and is the only heavy-rescue organization locally. Yet most of its time is spent on community events.
The squad assists with traffic control and other needs for 200 community events a year, Hutchens said, including charity walks, festivals, half-marathon and other road races and additional activities. With warm weather returning, the group is committed to assisting with some type of event for seven of the next eight weekends, the squad chief said.
“We’re covering five schools for football games,” Hutchens added. Although county officials do provide some funding to the squad, it basically only covers transportation costs for the games, he said.
Squad members, whose ranks now number about 30, must juggle such responsibilities with their regular jobs, according to Hutchens. “We’re totally volunteer — our members do not get paid for anything.”
The sour economy and a general reduction in grant assistance have strained the squad’s resources at a time when demands are increasing, with Hutchens noting that the municipality once allocated $15,000 to it per year. This was cut to $5,000, the level that has existed for at least the past four years.
In contrast, the town government in Pilot Mountain gives the rescue squad there $8,000 annually, according to Hutchens.
Commissioners Cawley and Yokeley seemed sympathetic to the squad’s concerns, while also acknowledging the financial realities facing city government.
“It looks like the rescue squad may be underfunded,” Cawley said after hearing the chief’s presentation. “Yet there’s no more money.”
It was agreed among the city officials Tuesday that the squad helps keep the Mount Airy Police Department’s budget down, since its officers would provide some of the same services as the squad if it didn’t exist.
However, Cawley also said that there is a certain public perception about an “overlapping” of rescue response. For example, a wreck call might be answered by the EMS and the rescue squad as well as the city fire department, which also responds to accidents.
“How we deal with that, I don’t know,” Hutchens responded.
He was glad for the opportunity Tuesday to address city officials on the rescue squad operations, which the chief said has not been done in several years.
“We really do try to support the city as best we can,” Hutchens said.
Aside from the rescue squad, the $102,650 sought for the Mount Airy Public Library also drew some of the most concern Tuesday from the Finance Committee.
While the city government owns the library building, the library itself is part of the Northwest Regional system.
In examining budget figures presented, Cawley noted that the municipality funds 42 percent of the library’s total budget of $240,279. Meanwhile, it was pointed out Tuesday that the city of King gives only $5,200 to its library, also a part of the Northwest Regional system.
Another finding that seemed to strike a chord with Cawley is that 68 percent of the facility’s users live outside the city limits, including Virginia counties.
Commissioner Yokeley said there could be a trade-off due to visitors patronizing Mount Airy businesses during library visits. “I’m sure a lot of people come to shop and to eat, too,” he said.
Cawley said the various issues associated with who uses the library and how it is funded might be confusing to the average citizen.
Yet he believes that the public wants the municipality to support the facility and might actually think it is a city government facility due to having the name Mount Airy Public Library. “The library is loved in this community,” he said.
For the sake of full disclosure, Jones, the city manager, said the municipality allocates money for building-related expenses in addition to the special appropriation, including electricity costs. The total for this year is $121,984.
A similar situation exists with the Andy Griffith Playhouse occupied by the arts council, which also is city-owned.
The library, playhouse and museum all are facing infrastructure needs, their representatives said.
Citizen Input Sought
After hearing the special-appropriations requests Tuesday, Cawley and Yokeley said they were not prepared to make recommendations to the full board of commissioners concerning the money requested. Both want more time to study the information, as well as gauge taxpayers’ sentiments on what the city’s role should be regarding funding.
“What I need is public input,” Cawley said, which was echoed by Yokeley.
“When the rescue squad goes to ballgames, what is the city’s role in that?” Cawley said of one example.
Another meeting is to be scheduled for the Finance Committee to develop its recommendations.
“I think we’re faced with some difficult decisions,” Cawley said.
“I look at these four agencies and they are all valuable.”
Reach Tom Joyce at 719-1924 or firstname.lastname@example.org.