Commonwealth could fund fire department study

By Alex Bridges

WOODSTOCK — A state agency may help Shenandoah County study staffing in its fire and rescue department at no cost.

The Board of Supervisors at a work session Thursday continued its discussion about conducting a study of the county’s department as one member had suggested at a previous meeting. A study could tell the county whether it needs more firefighters or emergency medical technicians and where among other possible findings.

The board included $25,000 in the fiscal 2014 budget that goes into effect July 1. However, at the work session, officials advised the board the county may not need to fund a study.

Acting County Administrator Mary Beth Price said the Virginia Department of Fire Programs offers to perform staffing studies for municipalities at no cost. The county needs to submit a letter of interest to the agency.

“Even if they do the study next year, I still don’t know that it would be ready by the next budget cycle, but certainly for [fiscal] 2015,” Price said.

The department Operations Section Chief Tim Williams explained that once the state agency receives the letter the county goes on a list of municipalities requesting the study. Once approved it takes the department about six months to conduct the study. Williams said the agency typically conducts four staffing studies per calendar year. Williams said he didn’t know if any requests were in line at the moment but the agency has completed one study and another remains in process.

The county still must receive approval by the state agency’s board to receive the study, Williams noted.

Board Chairman Conrad Helsley asked Williams if there was any reason the department wouldn’t approve the county’s request. Williams said he didn’t think so given that the county has not had a study done in recent years.

Vice Chairman Dennis Morris had suggested the county look at the department’s staffing as the board debated funding added personnel for the Sheriff’s Office. Morris noted the time factor for the request.

“So it’s probably prudent for us to move faster than slower, get our name on the list,” Morris said.

Price added that the county would need to outline the scope of the study in its request.

Morris recalled that Gary Yew, chief of the county department, had advised the board that they likely would not receive a study with the necessary scope for $25,000.

Supervisors plan to address the matter at their meeting Tuesday morning and could vote to authorize the county department to send the letter to the state agency requesting the study.

Also at the work session the board discussed the possible renewal of a program that allows personnel within the county school system to borrow from a line of credit to purchase computers for work.

The county established the $500,000 line of credit in 2001 that initially included government staff in addition to school personnel, Price said. School staff now can use the credit to purchase other devices such as iPads or Kindles, she noted. Personnel have borrowed upwards of $135,000 against the line of credit since the program began.

“It’s been a very successful program,” Price said.

Employees repay the principal on the loan through payroll deduction, Price said. The school division pays the interest, approximately $250 per month, Price said. The school system uses the program as a way to reward teachers and other staff.

The line of credit with First Bank is up for renewal, Price said. The matter appears on the agenda for the supervisors’ meeting Tuesday. The School Board takes up the renewal at its meeting Thursday, according to Price.

Supervisor David Ferguson asked why the county holds the line of credit if the school division uses the program. Price said both the Board of Supervisors and the School Board hold the line of credit and guarantee the loan. Supervisors provide the funding to the School Board.

Ferguson asked what happens to an employee who borrows money through the program but then leaves the school system before paying off the loan. Price explained that should the employee fail to repay the loan, the bank goes after that worker.

“Sounds like I’m responsible and I don’t want to be responsible,” Ferguson said.

Helsley echoed Ferguson’s concerns regarding who holds responsibility for the loan and questioned why the borrower doesn’t also cover the interest at the rate of 3.25 percent in the program.

“My second concern is that even though it’s a great [interest] rate and they’ve negotiated it, I’m not sure that the person who is buying the equipment shouldn’t pay the interest,” Helsley said. “Even though it’s only $250 a month it seems to me like the person paying the loan off on the equipment ought to also be paying the interest.”

“Because that individual couldn’t get that rate,” Morris interjected.

Price reiterated the praise given the program by school administration. She noted that school officials credit the program with increasing computer literacy and technology competency among staff.

The board asked that Assistant Superintendent of Administration and Finance Jeremy Raley appear at the supervisors’ meeting to answer questions about the program.

Helsley suggested the county administration allow general government staff to participate in the program as it had in the first year. Price concurred.

Contact staff writer Alex Bridges at 540-465-5137 ext. 125, or abridges@nvdaily.com