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When is free money not a bargain?

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By The Staff

By DAMON LAWRENCE

dlawrence@roanecounty.com

Roane County is looking to increase its number of paid firefighters.

According to a resolution endorsed by the budget committee, a federal grant would allow the county to hire eight firefighters and have their salaries and benefits covered for two years.     

“It sounds great, but you don’t get anything for nothing,” Commissioner Ron Berry said.

He’s right. According to the resolution, the grant requires the county to commit to retaining the firefighters for one year after the “two-year performance period.”

“The cost of retaining the eight needed firefighters to be requested through the grant has been estimated to cost the county approximately $400,000 each year from the fiscal year 2013 forward,” the grant states.

Roane County Executive Mike Farmer explained to the budget committee what that means.

“I’m telling you right now, if you do this, you’re going to have to have revenue enhancements in 2013,” Farmer said. “You’re going to have to have additional revenue, in my belief, in 2013.”

That additional revenue could come in the form of a tax increase. Farmer did not rule that out when pressed by Berry.

“I don’t think anybody can sit here and tell you this is not going to require a tax increase in 2013,” Farmer said. “I think that would be irresponsible.”

The county commission meets at 7 p.m. today, Monday, in the Roane County Courthouse. The firefighter resolution is on the tentative agenda.

Berry said last week that he’s not sure he can support the resolution because it could mean a future tax increase. He also expressed concerns about the county’s financial course.  

“You just mentioned money for the old jail to do something with,” Berry said. “Money for this, money for that. I’m just not sure how much new money we’re going to keep finding to do all this stuff.”

The county took some property-tax money out of the rural debt service fund and added it to the urban services fund to hire two full-time firefighters earlier this year. The plan was to add more in the years ahead.

Commissioners Bobby Collier and James Brummett said the federal grant would help the county accomplish its goal of hiring more firefighters sooner rather than later.

Additional firefighters could be needed. The South Roane County Volunteer Fire Department is having some financial difficulties, and officials said the department is in danger of folding.

If that happens, emergency management director Howie Rose said the county would be responsible for providing fire protection to that area. 

If the firefighters are hired, Berry wanted to know who would they would report to. 

“They would report to the chiefs down there; is that who would be their boss?” he asked.

“Howie Rose would be their boss,” budget director Alva Moore said.

“How do you have Howie Rose or the county being their boss and then working under a fire chief at a precinct?” Berry asked.

“We’re doing a wonderful job of that right now,” Farmer responded. “It’s absolutely amazing the cooperation you’re seeing from the five volunteer fire departments.”