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Rescue operation

SoVaNow.com / March 21, 2019




Can’t speak for anyone else, but there are days when I feel barraged with offers on how to protect against the worst in life: whether it’s paying an extra $3.99 on the power bill to insure our home from a water line break, or five bucks a month in case I lose or destroy my cell phone. (A daily possibility.) Usually these deals are couched in terms of what the average person might spend on sodas in a week, or how much loose change you’ll find lodged in the sofa cushions — peanuts, in other words.

How much is it worth to you to have a trained medic on standby to save your life in the event of an emergency?

On Monday, the Halifax County Board of Supervisors held a county budget public hearing and a budget work session, about which perhaps we’ll have more to say later. But today, let’s ponder a request by Ray Mason, chief of the Halifax County Rescue Squad, and Connie Pigg, a volunteer with Turbeville Fire and Rescue, for more money in the county budget to support local emergency medical services. At present, Halifax County’s three rescue squads (the South Boston station, Turbeville and North Halifax Fire and Rescue) receive a sum total of $210,000 in county taxpayer dollars. Mason and Pigg came forth to make the case for an additional $200,000 to be shared among the three units. It’s a request the Board of Supervisors has rejected, instead, allocating a grand total of $261,100 for coming fiscal year.

Supervisors have done everything in their power to keep a lid on tax increases, which has meant turning down agency spending requests left and right. So it’s not like the rescue squads have been singled out in any way here. But in their insistence on holding the line on taxes — which again, to be fair, hews to widespread sentiment in Halifax County — county supervisors, and lots of other people besides, have lost sight of the tradeoffs and true costs involved in budgeting. So let’s take a look at the numbers and consider where our greater interests lie.

Start with the figure we’ve seen put out by the budget and finance committee, chaired by ED-1 supervisor J.T. Davis: $377,000. That’s the extra revenue the county treasury reaps with each penny hike in the real estate tax. People may recognize this number because it’s repeatedly cited whenever the conversation turns to the cost of financing a high school upgrade of $100 million, or $90 million or $50 million or whatever the price tag ultimately turns out to be.

What you don’t hear much is how the numbers work in reverse — that is, not the amount of revenue the county collects with each 1-cent increase in the real estate tax, but rather how much the average taxpayer has to fork over. Just how much will we be on the hook for? A clue: it’s a heckuva lot less than what you’ll spend on sodas in the span of a year, or even a week.

Consider a simple example: your home has an assessed tax value of $100,000, and because you live in Halifax County you pay a real estate tax rate of 48 cents per $100 in value. (We’ll leave aside the question of town taxes, since most of the carping about property taxes emanates from unincorporated areas of the county.) Just to be clear, the majority of local residents live in homes valued below $100,000, but you can take this $100,000 baseline and adapt the numbers to fit your personal situation. With a 48-cent tax rate, the bill from the Treasurer’s Office on your $100,000 home works out to $480. If the rate goes up a penny, your bill rises to $490. That’s … ten whole bucks. For the year.

County funding for our rescue squads is currently set around $210,000. With an additional sum of $200,000, which the squads have asked for, the cost of making sure a fully-manned ambulance is available in your time of crisis equates to a tax hit of less than $11 a year. (This is based on $377,000 per penny in real estate tax revenue, and a proposed budget allocation of $410,000 for the rescue squads). Eleven dollars a year! But wait: there’s more, as they say on TV: Because our rescue squads currently receive only $210,000 in county funding, you, John and Jane Q. Taxpaying Public, pay only $5.60 a year for the peace of mind — and sometimes, renewed license on life — that local rescue units provide.

Not $5.60 per month. $5.60 per year.

This is an absolutely amazing deal, except for the part where this paltry level of funding threatens to break the will of our local EMS providers, a hardy, selfless group of men and women who for whatever crazy reason (concern for the health and welfare of their neighbors, sense of obligation to the community, goodness of heart, etc.) step up to protect the rest of us from catastrophe. I get a little misty-eyed on this subject because several times in the past year our family leaned on the community’s EMS providers to come to the aid of our late mother. You cannot say enough good things about these folks (both fire and rescue, although it’s the latter group we’re primarily concerned with today). So yes, please talk up the wonderfulness of these organizations and individuals. But also realize that talk is cheap. What our squads really need is more money, and we should give it to them — especially at the piddly cost of an extra five or ten or twenty bucks a year.

It’s hard to do justice to the narrative that Mason and Pigg brought to the Board of Supervisors’ meeting, because we’ve all gotten used to the idea of members of the community stepping up and providing life-saving service on a free basis. Many of us grew up in this world, even if most of us have not personally given our time back to it. (I haven’t.) Pigg, who is not compensated for his many, many hours of EMS work, observed that it’s gotten harder with each passing year to keep the Turbeville unit manned with volunteers. And no surprise: medic training has grown more complex, time-consuming and expensive, the volume of calls is rising as the county’s population ages, and EMS volunteers serve 24/7/365 — responding to everything from life-threatening crises to frivolous calls for help, at all hours, day or night. (Asked if there’s anything that can be done about the time-wasters, Mason responded, “Everybody who calls 911 is legitimate. We don’t have the ability to turn anyone down.”)

Pigg called rescue “my full-time job.” (Remember, he’s a volunteer.) Turbeville’s newest ambulance is 20 years old. The most modern vehicle in the Halifax County Rescue Squad fleet is a 2007 model, purchased used. Between the three squads, they’re running operating deficits of roughly $140,000 annually. This cannot stand. The ask for $200,000 additional from the county is barely enough to keep our local squads afloat.

According to Mason and Pigg’s presentation, it would take around $330,000 to hire paid personnel to ensure that ambulances are ready to roll everywhere in the county at a moment’s notice, guaranteed, at all times day and night. Tens of thousands, probably more like hundreds of thousands of dollars should be set aside for capital expenditures (a new, fully-equipped ambulance costs around $337,000, according to the two men.) Halifax County budgets less than a third of what Mecklenburg County spends on its rescue organizations ($650,000). Our $210,000 county allocation pales in comparison to Charlotte County, which budgets $350,000 — this, by a county which is considerably smaller than Halifax, geographically and population-wise. By the way, has Charlotte County gotten a stoplight yet?

I understand people’s aversion to taxes. I really do. I don’t like the thought of government wasting money any more than you do, and even when outright waste is not the issue, expenditures of any sort are rightly subject to public scrutiny and the demand that citizens receive a return on their investment. We can argue about what this means in practice, but I fail to see any argument for spurning the request that Mason and Pigg brought to the Board of Supervisors on Monday night. In fact, the rightful response by board members would be to exceed the sum being sought — substantially.

Or we can simply leave our local rescue squads to subsist through the kindness of individuals who are willing to chip in a few bucks here and there, or help out with pancake dinners or bucket drives. There are other scattered sources of revenue that the squads rely on: Medicare and Medicaid, which do not pay full freight, and private insurance billings. (If anyone is still sore about the fact rescue squads began charging for patient transports many years ago, please get over it. Nothing is free in this day and age.) If we as a county don’t do more to help our squads from a budget standpoint, we’re in essence taking advantage of the selfless service of a small number of individuals and everyone else will pay somewhere around $5.60, give or take five bucks, as a mandated token of appreciation. Great deal for us, not so much for them.

It’s been said that a conservative is a liberal who’s been mugged. Maybe it’s time to turn that logic around and observe that a liberal might once have been a conservative prior to the heart attack. What we’re arguing for here, of course, has nothing to do with being a liberal or conservative. On some basic matters, like adequately funding the rescue squad, I would imagine we’re all of one mind. But how we’ve allowed matters to get to this point is very much a question of politics. So let’s wrap up today by saying something about that.

The first thing to keep in mind that Halifax County, and communities like us, aren’t getting a lot of help nowadays from the outside world. All the money flows are pointed elsewhere, whether through the devices of the public or private sector. State and federal dollars coming into the community aren’t what they used to be. Private income is congealing with the top 1 percent. The farm economy isn’t great, and stupid tariffs and trade wars don’t (and won’t) help matters. But it’s one thing to point out this stuff, another to let our minds be consumed by it.

A penny increase in the county real estate tax will leave you ten dollars poorer for the year, assuming you’re sufficiently well-to-do to afford a $100,000 home. That ten dollar-a-head payment would put local rescue on reasonably sound financial footing. A few more ten-dollar increments will probably be sufficient to pay for a new high school (assuming the sales tax referendum goes through). Point is, Halifax County may not have many outside champions, but we do have agency and we do have the ability to do things for our own benefit — smart things, not especially expensive ones, that can create a better future for ourselves and our kids. But the first step is we put our burdens in context and get past the notion that taxes must not go up, no way, no how, never. EMS volunteers spend untold hours tending to injured and ill members of the community — the sort of commitment that takes a toll on their pocketbooks and wallets. The rest of us? Most of us are willing to throw in a few dollars, if hit up at the right time. Yet the right time to fulfill our obligations as citizens of the community is tax time, and while I get the criticism of many aspects of local government (and agree some of the time), excessive complaining and ideological posturing threatens to rob us of our better judgment in deciding what we should be spending our money on. It may take a little commitment to push the tax rate up by a cent or two. That won’t begin to touch the dedication of our EMS community. Or our teachers. Or our police.

So the question is: Why should they be asked the bear the burdens alone?





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