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Commissioners warm to fire chiefs’ request

The Harrison County Fire Chiefs Association got the go-ahead Monday night to seek $300,000 in riverboat revenue to help keep the 10 volunteer departments running safely.
“I’m sitting on top of the roof,” said fire chief spokesman Gerald Saulman, after the commissioners approved the request following a lengthy debate Monday night.
Saulman told the commissioners that fighting fires and outfitting firefighters with safety equipment has become “very expensive.”
Firefighters Rick Burton and David Davis displayed a huge pile of safety equipment now required. To outfit one firefighter with “turn-out gear” costs about $5,000, “and this is only the tip of the iceberg,” Saulman said.
Funding approval would allow each department, spread throughout the county, to outfit five or six firefighters, Saulman said. Between them, the fire departments have about 250 firefighters, 59 vehicles, 15 buildings, and a “multitude of other essential equipment.”
The request clearly had the approval of out-going commission chair Terry L. Miller, who prompted more questions and answers when postponement on a decision seemed likely.
“Fire departments, ambulance service, police, all provide public safety and should be our No. 1 priority,” Miller said, adding that the board should approve the funding and send the request on to the council.
Commissioner J.R. Eckart agreed. “Our No. 1 commitment is to public health, safety and welfare,” he said. “Everything beyond that is pure fluff.”
“We should go with the $300,000 and put the pressure on them (council members) and see what they do,” Miller said, with a wry smile. “The other body (the council) puts pressure on us all the time.”
Three of the seven councilpersons were in the audience. Carl Duley, Gary Davis (the chair) and Carl (Buck) Mathes listened intently but said not a word.
(The unpaid, volunteer firefighters aren’t likely to be turned down. As of March, the commissioners and council had approved nearly $1 million to upgrade firefighting equipment, including some big firetrucks, since the influx of riverboat money in 1999. That amount doesn’t include operating expenses paid to the fire departments by taxing districts or towns or townships, which also receive riverboat revenue.)
The fire chiefs association, representing the 10 volunteer fire departments, wants each department to receive $30,000 each year. If approved by the council as suggested by the commissioners, the funding would be up for renewal or denial each year.
The commissioners had some concern that approval might jeopardize the freeze placed on riverboat revenue spending for non-government projects. Commissioner James Goldman said the needs of county government continue, such as an animal shelter that still hasn’t been built.
(He reminded the audience that the commissioners had earlier responded to a compromise offer by the council regarding the amount to be spent on an animal control facility, but the council wouldn’t negotiate.)
Moving the Annex from the flood plain and upgrading courthouse facilities are two other projects yet to be settled.
“I’m of a mind we need to settle some of these issues,” Goldman said. “I would like to see us get off dead center on some of these projects that keep dragging, dragging and dragging.”
He added: “That doesn’t mean I don’t want to give you the money. If we do this, we will have to unfreeze the money.”
So, after a brief, mumbled discussion among themselves, Eckart said, “I think this is a county issue; it doesn’t really open up the freeze.”
Goldman said: “I think it has a much higher priority than a lot of other things. If we consider it a county issue, if that’s the case, this would not fall under the freeze.”
Grinning, he quipped: “I would hope we could still have chicken barbecues if we give you this money.”
The audience, filled with firefighters, responded with laughter, and Duley said, “The politicians wouldn’t have no place to go to eat.”
Goldman’s motion to seek funding approval from the council, seconded by Eckart, stipulates that the firefighters may return to the commissioners if emergency needs arise.
“If they’ve got a need, it would have to be a good one before I would consider it,” Goldman said. “Rome wasn’t built in a day and neither was Harrison County.”
If approved, the commissioners asked that the funds be taken from the riverboat human services account, which on Nov. 7 had a balance of slightly more than $764,700.
The firefighters will make their pitch to the council at its planning session Monday night.