Sunday, July 14, 2024

114 West Elm Street
Graham, NC 27253
Ph: 336.228.7851

AMONG BIG TICKET ITEMS: Courthouse expansion, new EMS station, higher salaries, buying diversion center

During the daylong commissioners’ meeting, Rebecca Crawford, the county’s budget director Crawford attributed about $8.4 million of next year’s anticipated deficit to increases in the county’s salaries and benefits. These added costs presumably include a raft of pay raises that the commissioners adopted earlier this year in response to a pay study which that focused on three county departments that have had a particularly hard time recruiting and retaining qualified staff.

The commissioners ultimately agreed to apply the study’s recommendations to most of Alamance County’s workforce, resulting in an overall hike of 1.7 percent in the annual payroll.

York acknowledged that, for all their “market-based” calibration, these recent raises have conspicuously failed to stem the defections in the sheriff’s department, Emergency Medical Services, and the department of social services – which had inspired the county to commission the aforementioned pay study.

“These three departments want to let you know that they appreciate the market study,” the county manager added, “but they have continuing issues that will require additional assistance beyond market pay.”

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York confessed that the situation is particularly bad in the child and adult protective units of the county’s department of social services. She recalled that, at last check, child protective services had no one serving in 11 of its 20 positions. As a result, the unit’s remaining staff have an average workload of 40 cases per person – or four times the amount that the state recommends for those posts.

York noted that the outlook is only marginally better in the 5-person adult protective unit, whose two current vacancies have led to an average workload of 22 cases – or 7 more than the state recommends.

The county manager also reported lingering staffing difficulties for the sheriff. She said that the 12 openings in his patrol division and the 43 in detention are proving quite hard to fill in spite of the previous attention his salaries have received from the commissioners.

“The sheriff,” she added, “is making consistent efforts to improve recruitment and retention…But he is seeing his applicant pool being very challenging with folks not being able to pass background checks or being eligible to work for his department.”

York added that the sheriff believes his vacancies have compromised the quality of work among his subordinates, lowered employee morale, increased his agency’s legal liability, and increase the incidence of stress-related burnout and leave.

York went on to present an equally bleak report for Emergency Medical Services, where staffing shortages have apparently been exacerbated by increasing demand for ambulance service in the county’s easternmost reaches.

The county manager noted that EMS has been forced to rely on unscheduled overtime to address the increasing need – at an added cost of $50,000 a month, or $600,000 over the course of the year. In the meantime, she said that increases in this agency’s pay have been more or less nullified by similar hikes in competing jurisdictions.

“It has continued to ratchet up, up and up,” she admitted, “and all of these places are still struggling with vacancies.”


Financial “stretchers”

York was able to offer the commissioners several options to address the workload dilemma in EMS.

One of her proposals was for the commissioners to allow the department to expand the hours of its “peak time” ambulance to a 24/7 schedule. She acknowledged that this move will require four extra staff members at a total cost to the county of $237,500 a year.

As an alternative, York proposed that the commissioners could farm out the agency’s so-called “convalescent transports” – or the non-emergency shuttle service it provides at the behest of hospitals, clinics, and organizations like hospice. York conceded that this move could free up four staff members to deal with more urgent, emergency calls. She added, however, that it would also siphon off about $800,000 in revenue that EMS current gets from convalescent transports, which account for about 40 percent of the calls made by its full service ambulances.

York acknowledged that she oversaw a similar privatization gambit in Person County, where she had been the top-ranking administrator prior to her arrival in Alamance. She added, however, that the transition wasn’t entirely smooth – and may now be regretted by the current leadership of her old jurisdiction.

“There are some issues with that in loss of quality control,” she went on to explain, “and any service quality issues would not be handled outside the government.”

In the end, the commissioners agreed to have York explore this proposed change in Alamance County, although they, likewise, expressed some mixed feelings about the prospect of outsourcing this traditional county government function.

A third proposal that York floated on behalf of EMS is for the county to expedite the development of a proposed new ambulance base that has been proposed for the eastern part of the county.

Despite its anticipated personnel cost of about $950,000, this prospective facility is expected to have an enormous impact on the runaway demand for ambulance service in Mebane and the vicinity.

Sherry Hook, the county’s deputy manager, noted that the county may need something in the neighborhood of $5 million to build this facility on property that it recently acquired from the local rescue unit. Hook added that the county could potentially get $3.5 million of this project’s expense from its unspent kitty of federal pandemic relief funds. In the meantime, it may need to obtain an installment loan from a bank to cover the remaining $1.5 million of this endeavor.


Capital cases

In addition to the proposed ambulance base, the county’s administrators presented the commissioners with several other big capital ventures to include in their deliberations about the county’s next annual budget.

One of these proposed projects includes the transformation of a former Becton Dickson building in Burlington into a new headquarters for both the county’s emergency operators and their counterparts with the city of Burlington.

The county’s administrators currently expect to spend at least $17.2 million on a partial conversion of this old industrial facility to serve as new, centralized 9-1-1 center. This price tag could ultimately reach as high as $25.3 million if the county opts for a “full renovation” to allow other emergency services to inhabit the building. In either case, the county has received a state allocation of $15 million to offset much of this project’s expected expense, while it stands to receive another $2.2 in potential reimbursements from a state-level E-9-1-1 fund as well as $4.2 million over 10 years if it agrees to lease part of the refurbished edifice to the state.  These revenue sources nevertheless leave the county $3.9 million short of the amount needed to complete the building’s full renovation.

Another costly new building on the county’s to-do list is a so-called mental health diversion center that’s currently under construction off of Kirkpatrick Road in Burlington.  During Monday’s retreat, the county’s administrators urged the commissioners to set aside $11,219,298 in pandemic relief funds to purchase this building, whose total cost is expected to run about $18.2 million.

In the meantime, county staff members floated three competing proposals to accommodate a new district court judge and other judicial officials who are finding themselves increasingly cramped in their current county-subsidized digs. One of these options, which was first presented to the commissioners in the fall of 2022, calls for $65 million to $75 million to renovate and expand the Judge J.B. Allen, Jr. Criminal Court House in Graham. On Monday, the county’s administrators proffered a downsized version of this same project with an anticipated cost of $40 million to $50 million. Meanwhile, a third option would see the county abandon its current headquarters for the court system’s use and relocate its own displaced departments to various other locations – at an estimated cost of $10 million to $15 million.

Despite its comparatively low cost, this third alternative drew a skeptical response from Steve Carter, the vice chairman of Alamance County’s commissioners.

“If we just play musical chairs and move different groups to different locations,” Carter inquired at the retreat, “what have we gained in efficiency?”

Commissioner Craig Turner was perhaps even more hesitant to turn the county’s headquarters over to the local courts system. Turner, who is an attorney by trade, complained that this option would require deputies to make frequent dashes across the street with criminal suspects in tow.

“So there’s an advantage to having a criminal courtroom in a space where you have [direct] access to the jail,” he added. “I just think it’s a bad plan to have courts in the county offices.”

“It sounds like a quick fix that we’ll pay for later,” concurred commissioner Pam Thompson.

“I agree,” added John Paisley, Jr., the chairman of Alamance County’s commissioners. “But I still don’t have enough information financial or otherwise to make a decision.”


Raising the roofs

The county’s administrators also gave the commissioners a sneak preview of a global facilities assessment that has been underway to determine the need for roofing and HVAC repairs at the various buildings maintained by the county and the Alamance-Burlington school system.

During Monday’s work session, the commissioners received two prioritized lists that enumerated the 20 most urgent roofing and HVAC projects as determined by the consultants that the county had hired to review these facilities. With the exception of Alamance County’s jail, which appeared at the bottom of the prioritized roofing inventory, all of these projects lay firmly within the school system’s domain. The county’s roofing consultant ultimately included a handful of previously funded projects within its top 20 priorities. Even so, this list contained nearly $29.7 million in unfunded projects, while the HVAC inventory came with an overall price tag of nearly $56.5 million.

The county’s administrators, for their part, recommended that the commissioners allot these various projects some $19.5 million in unissued bond revenue that the county could obtain from a bond package that area voters approved on behalf of the school system in 2018. The remainder of the projects would be knocked out over the course of 9 years at an estimated cost of $10 million per annum.

In the meantime, commissioner Turner suggested that the county should hire a “roofing czar” to make sure these school-related endeavors are completely in a timely and cost-effective manner. Other commissioners pushed for some sort of contractual provisions that would give them more control over the school system’s capital ventures.

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