Carroll County will have to wait a little longer for its first fire and emergency medical services director to be hired.
Just over a month ago, Commissioner Stephen Wantz, R-District 1, had hoped to select the director of the county’s new fire and EMS department by mid-April.
That was before the first case of COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, was announced in Carroll County.
That was also before the county budget director projected a $15 million revenue shortfall under what was budgeted this fiscal year, if coronavirus-related closures continue through June.
During budget talks Tuesday, the Board of County Commissioners unanimously voted to freeze hiring beginning May 1, with the exception of essential positions, until after the new fiscal year begins July 1.
The field of applicants for fire and EMS director has been narrowed to three men, according to Wantz. The person hired will play a central role in moving the county toward a combination paid and volunteer fire service.
On Thursday, Commissioner Richard Weaver, R-District 2, said people in the fire and EMS service had reached out to him about the hiring freeze, saying they wanted the commissioners to move forward with hiring the new director and not wait.
Commissioner Ed Rothstein, R-District 5, also got phone calls about it, but said now is not the right environment in which to hire the director.
Wantz wants the director on board, he said, but there is little money in the budget for the person to do their job.
“You can’t hire a person who doesn’t have any ability to do anything because there’s no money there,” he said.
The salary and benefits for the director and an administrative assistant are budgeted, but little else is.
Wantz said the candidates verified they are still interested regardless of the delay.
He concluded the discussion by reminding the board that the hiring freeze motion they passed had an exception for positions the commissioners deem essential.
“Then this, I would think, would be considered essential. This does not apply to our hiring freeze, and we’ll get to it as soon as possible,” Wantz said.
Don Fair, president of Carroll County Volunteer Emergency Services Association, wished the director of fire and EMS was in place prior to the pandemic.
“We’re really disappointed that the turn of events is holding this director’s appointment up," he said Friday. “They can’t keep pushing this down the road.”
Cuts to agriculture, discretionary spending
To further trim expenses this fiscal year, the commissioners Tuesday unanimously voted for the budget office to look into eliminating discretionary funding in the 2020 fiscal year.
Ted Zaleski, director of management of budget, said the budget office could work with other departments to reduce discretionary spending as much as possible. County administrator Roberta Windham said they typically do this at the end of each fiscal year, but Zaleski said the vote will move the process up by about six weeks.
“Six weeks is six weeks in these trying times,” Wantz said.
The commissioners also made a cut to agricultural land preservation that undid a decision they made the week prior.
On April 9, the board voted 3-2 to decrease funding from $3 million to $2.5 million per year to agricultural land preservation, on an ongoing basis. Commissioners Dennis Frazier, R-District 3, and Eric Bouchat, R-District 4, stood opposed.
To soften the blow, Rothstein suggested committing a $5 million bond to preservation, while withdrawing $500,000 in funding, and that was approved.
The board’s position on the bond funding changed after Zaleski provided additional information at a budget meeting April 14.
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The savings of cutting $500,000 to preservation would not be much greater than the debt service that would come with a $5 million bond, according to Zaleski. The savings would amount to about $25,000 per year, he wrote in an email.
Most of the commissioners decided the potential savings weren’t enough to make the bond worth it.
“The impact is much less than we expected,” Rothstein said, and then made a motion to do away with the bond.
The commissioners voted 4-1 in favor of the motion, with Weaver opposed.
“It is a fragile economy for a lot of these guys,” Weaver said, speaking of farmers.
Going forward, agricultural land preservation will be funded $2.5 million per year instead of $3 million.
All decisions made by commissioners during budget meetings are conditional upon the budget being adopted, which must occur by the end of May.