They are the first responders – sheriff, fire-rescue, EMS, hospital – the people you never think about until you need them. Second only to schools, they require the lion’s share of Putnam County’s property tax revenue to operate. How much are they worth?
The Putnam County Commission started putting together its annual budget two weeks ago. One by one, department heads entered the small room, sat in the hot seat and presented their requests for funding for the fiscal year starting Oct. 1.
Despite the uncertain economy caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, firstround requests are busting the budget. The county currently operates with about $18 million, but requests for next year push that to about $21 million. Commissioners are going to have to make some tough decisions to keep spending under control.
McClain says he has 17 fulltime, four part-time paid and 19 volunteers to fight fires and answer rescue and other emergency calls. He’s created a 10-year plan to improve coverage in the county which, this year, includes hiring eight new positions at an additional cost of $600,000 to $700,000 a year. This would allow the Rock Eagle Fire Station Number 9 to be staffed with two people 24/7. Currently, no one is there.
“There’s a fire truck and a fire station,” McClain told the commissioners. “I know that it’s been attempted to man that station in the past because the high school is out there and Rock Eagle 4-H club is out there. You think of it as a sparsely populated area, so you would think that our responses out there would be limited. But just since I’ve been here, we’ve had some pretty major responses out there. We’ve had a significant number of wrecks out there. We had a tornado out there.”
The fire department will also be receiving two new fire trucks that will be paid for by the Special Local Option Sales Tax (SPLOST) fund and not the operating budget.
Sheriff Howard Sills mentioned getting three new cars thanks to SPLOST, but he also plans to issue every one of his deputies a taser.
“I’ve been reluctant to do this for some time,” he said; “but I fear the legislature may pass some kind of law about hand-to-hand combat, for lack of a better term.”
Sills says the tasers are already ordered with the initial payment coming from cash and the sale of items seized during criminal arrests.
However, Sills also had a big-ticket request.
“We desperately need isolation cells,” he told commissioners. He showed them a design for a building that would contain eight small cells with toilets. Sills added that it must have a negative air pressure system, which minimizes the spread of diseases by preventing cross contamination between rooms.
Sills said he needs to get more bids, but the one he came with was for almost $1.5 million.
Putnam General Hospital received $400,000 to cover the costs of indigent care this year. Hospital CEO, Alan Horton, says its annual losses in unpaid bills are actually at least $1.2 million. He was there to ask the county to increase its contribution to $600,000.
Also, he said COVID-19 rules forced the hospital to stop accepting non-emergency surgeries, which led to a loss of $444,000 in April and $467,000 in May.
The hospital has the county commission’s approval to seek voters’ approval for a 1-mill property tax increase to help fund the hospital, which has teetered on the edge of closing for a long time. It will be on the ballot in the November election.
The current county government millage rate, which is used to compute property taxes, stands at 8.2 mills. In addition, the county school system adds 16 mills, and residents of Eatonton add 10 more mills.
Commissioner Bill Sharp (Dist. 3) was concerned the hospital is not publicizing the proposal enough to convince voters the additional 1 mill is needed.
“I’d like to see an effort from the hospital staff to put together some kind of a presentation,” Sharp said. “If you’ll put some salesmanship behind it, you got four months, and I think it’s going to be the most important four months you’re going to have. But the voters need to understand that it’s not forever.”
But, on-staff Pediatrician Christopher Bassett, who was also at the session, said the 1-mill tax needs to be forever.
“That hospital is not going to be able to continue without that kind of support from the county,” he said.
Emergency Medical Services (EMS) Director Brad Murphey did not come for a lot more money this year, but he did warn that in the next few years, three or four of his paramedics will be retiring, and it is becoming more difficult to find new qualified people at the salary Putnam offers.
“It’s not the best,” Murphey said. “That’s the reason a lot of people are going out and looking for other places. People who don’t mind it a little busier than Putnam are going to Macon, Milledgeville. They’re paying, starting out, $21-$22 an hour. The younger people are looking at dollars, not retirement benefits.”
Murphey said EMS takes about eight calls a day, and most of them require driving patients to another county. With COVID-19 patients, paramedics sometimes have to wait for more than an hour in the vehicle while the hospital clears a bed for the patient.
EMS cannot transport dialysis patients, which is where the real money is because insurance companies are willing to pay more for that service. Murphey said Medicare and Medicaid do not pay enough to cover these costs.
“Our revenue is staying the same,” Webster said, “but our costs are going up. It’s not because it’s anything we can do or not do. It’s just that the powers that be in Washington decided that we can get by with less.”
What to do?
Commissioners seemed inclined to compromise with many of the requests. Webster mentioned cutting back on the number of new firefighters and waiting for lower bids on the sheriff’s detention cells. At times, commissioners questioned whether a particular project could be funded with revenue from the current budget.
They also were interested in finding additional revenue. One area is the Hotel-Motel tax where the county admits that hundreds of property owners who rent their homes are not registering and not paying the required fees and taxes. Anticipated revenue in a couple of years from the newly proposed lakefront hotel on Collis Road was one reason it was approved by commissioners last month.
Revenue from the tax so far this year is $152,000, but it is expected to increase to $222,000. County Manager Paul Van Haute says that’s because the Masters golf tournament, which is a popular period for home rentals, was delayed until November. There would be two Masters in next year’s budget. County staff was directed to work with the Chamber of Commerce on tracking down delinquent landlords.
The Board of Commissioners will be making revisions in the budget through mid-August. A public hearing on the budget is scheduled for Aug. 18.