A budget amendment allocating $509,858 for the purchase of new mobile radios for police and other emergency services was pulled during Monday’s County Commission meeting following a lengthy and confusing discussion.
At its September meeting the County Commission voted to use the $509,858 in unrestricted state COVID stimulus funds to purchase emergency radios.
On Monday, however, Commissioner Mike Herrell opposed approval of the budget amendment allocating those funds.
Herrell noted that neither Mayor Jim Lee nor Emergency Management Agency director Jamie Miller attended the meeting to give the commission a progress update on the emergency radio system project currently underway.
When the initial resolution was approved in September Herrell made an amendment stating that those updates were required, along with bids figures for any pending purchases for the emergency radio project.
Initially Herrell moved Monday to remove the $509K radio expenditure from the resolution, as well as remove an unrelated $21,235 amendment requested by Mayor Lee to cover part time personnel who have filled in for vacant full time positions.
That motion failed, after which Herrell made motion to table the entire budget amendment resolution, which was approved 11-9.
That budget amendment resolution also included the acceptance of more $818,658 in federal grant funding for projects at the Hawkins County Airport with no local matching funds.
Tabling of the emergency radio budget amendment was met with criticism by some commissioners including Jason Roach.
Earlier in the meeting the commission voted to earmark $1.5 million of the federal COVID stimulus funding for the purchase of firefighter turnout gear and air bottles. This move was against the advice of county finance director Eric Buchanan.
Buchanan told the Budget Committee last week that the state is expected to have a website online in January that will tell county and city governments which purchases using federal COVID stimulus funds are approved and which aren’t.
Buchanan suggested that the $1.5 million expenditure be tabled until the final rules for use of the federal stimulus funds are released, and that website “portal” is online.
Roach asked the commission Monday that if it agreed to earmark $1.5 million for firefighter turnout gear, how can it deny approval for the emergency radios.
“We know that the radios are in terrible shape,” Roach said. “The same principle that we just acted on for turnout gear is still true for communications. We allocated turnout gear for fire departments because turnout gear is terrible. We have a chance to allocate money for portable radios, and all radios for our first responders as well, because their equipment is terrible.”
Roach added, “We need to go ahead and vote on this and get it done. I don’t support splitting this resolution. I don’t support pulling the resolution.”
Commission Larry Clonce echoed Roach’s sentiments, and went further to suggest that Herrell’s objection to the budget amendment is related to differences he has with Mayor Lee.
“You can’t support the turnout gear and then turn around and not vote on the (radios),” Clonce said. “We’ve been discussing this for two years on new equipment. I’m going to just say it. You can’t be against communication equipment just because the mayor supports it.”
Herrell said he’s not against it because Mayor Lee support sit.
“It’s in the resolution that he is supposed to be here, or Jamie Miller, and give a report,” Herrell said. “It’s also in that resolution amendment they are supposed to bring us the bids. Now, if you want to be no accountability to the county — we’re spending the taxpayers money with no accountability and it needs to stop.”
Herrell added, “We approved it. Why can’t they do their part.”
On Tuesday Mayor Lee responded to the Commission’s actions in an email sent to all members of the county commission and the Review.
In that email Lee noted that the County Commission has already approved the spending of the Governor’s COVID stimulus grant funding for the radios.
“It is not a good practice to bid a project without having appropriations to pay for said project,” Lee said. “If a project is bid without appropriations to pay for the project, it can cause major problems including liability. (Monday) night’s resolution was to approve the budget amendment moving this money into a line so we could put this out for bid which was approved by the budget committee.”
Mayor Lee noted that the emergency radio bid specs are ready to be sent out pending passage of the $509,858 budget amendment.
“Here we go again with Commissioner Herrell doing what he does best — grandstanding,” Lee said. “Commissioner Herrell will do or say anything in order to get a vote. He has no idea how county government works. Stop Commissioner Herrell from dividing your County Commission and stop him from using Public Safety Personnel as pawns.”
Lee added, “I want to make it very clear that my office nor myself answer to Commissioner Herrell or the County Commission. The County Commission does not answer to me. We have separate duties. I have a little over 9 months left in office and I assure you that I will continue to do my job. Will you?”