Tensions flare over potential paid fire chief

By Heather Michon, correspondent

Tensions over a potential paid fire chief to oversee Fluvanna’s volunteer corps of first responders came to the fore during a budget work session Wednesday (March 20).

Chiefs Richie Constantino (Lake Monticello), Mike Brent (Fluvanna), Dwayne Mayo (Palmyra), and Andrew Pullen (Kents Store) said they were fine with the job description for the position.

However, “I do have some reservations as to when hire,” said Constantino, citing the current need for some high-dollar expenses like self-contained breathing apparatuses and replacement emergency vehicles.

A paid fire chief would cost the county about $96,000 a year in pay and benefits.

Brent, Pullen and Mayo echoed Constantino’s concerns. “It’ll come, I’m sure, but this is not the time,” Mayo said.

Questioned by Supervisor Mozell Booker as to whether the cost was the only issue they had, Brent said he was “hesitant on this position because of what’s happened in other places.”

The implementation of a paid, professional fire chief often leads to a loss of volunteer staff and replacement with paid staff.

“My opinion is not a welcome one,” Emergency Management Coordinator Debbie Smith told the supervisors when asked for her input.

Smith said she doesn’t want to see the county move away from volunteer to career staff, but a professional fire chief could streamline emergency services by consolidating and standardizing equipment and training across departments. “They can always use the excuse that the money isn’t there, [but] I really think it’s beyond time we do this,” she said.

During their regular meeting, supervisors approved the job description for a fire chief by a vote of 5-0, but any decision about when to begin the hiring process will come at a future date.

Health insurance increase

Jessica Rice, human resources manager, said it looked like health insurance rates could rise by 30 percent in fiscal year 2020 (FY20) – an increase of $498,000.

The increase is largely due to three large medical claims by county staff and high costs for medications.

“We’re going to work really hard to get those numbers down,” Rice told supervisors, but she cautioned that the county has little leverage to negotiate much lower fees.

County Administrator Steve Nichols reminded supervisors that they had $300,000 set aside in anticipation of a price increase, and it was just a matter of figuring out how to allocate money when the final numbers come in from Cigna in mid-April.

“You always have three choices,” he said. “The county pays the increases, the employees pay the increases, or somewhere in the middle.”

Rice also presented figures for cost of living increases for county employees. A 1 percent increase would cost approximately $92,500 in payroll, while a 3 percent increase would cost $272,300.

She also proposed targeted pay increases for those part-time county employees paid less than $12 an hour and for full-time employees paid under $14 an hour.

If passed by supervisors, it would be the first targeted increase since December 2016.

Controversial new development

Senior Planner Brad Robinson briefed supervisors on a proposed housing development on Route 600.

Island Hill would be constructed on a 25-acre plot between Broken Island Road and Lake Monticello’s Riverside Section. Access to the 49 single-family detached units would be just off Broken Island Road. The Planning Commission approved the application Feb. 12.

Several residents, most from Broken Island, spoke during public comments to voice their concerns over the impact of so many new residents accessing an already dangerous intersection. Broken Island Road sits on a sharp corner on Route 600, which has seen several accidents over the years.

“It would be a tragedy for someone to die to prove the point of how dangerous it is,” said Broken Island resident Linda Bernick.

During a quarterly update on Virginia Department of Transportation projects in the county, District Administrator Alan Saunders said an additional 50 homes on the road would usually work out to about 500 additional trips per day. Route 600 is one of the most heavily traveled roads in Fluvanna County, with several thousand trips per day.

Tax advertisement deferred

Due to the packed agenda, supervisors decided to delay setting an advertised real estate tax rate during the meeting as originally planned. Instead, they will choose an advertised rate at their work session March 27.

The decision revises the calendar for the final vote on the FY20 budget, which was originally scheduled for April 17. Under state law, the rate has to be published for two weeks prior to a public hearing. To meet that requirement, the board will delay the budget vote until a special session April 24.

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