CEDARA POINT — Unlike the Carteret County towns it serves, the Western Carteret Fire and EMS Department has not received any funds from the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan Act of 2021.
Chief Kevin Hunter would like to change that, whether it’s from the federal government directly or through contributions from the towns for specific programs or projects.
The act was approved by Congress and signed into law by President Joe Biden to help local governments and others entities deal with the financial impact of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
During a Wednesday night special meeting of the Western Carteret Interlocal Cooperation Agency board of directors, which oversees the WCFD, Chief Hunter made an impassioned plea for the department and the board to get a cut of the ARPA pie.
The federal government is supposed to send a total of close to a million dollars this year and next to the four towns in his department’s district: Cedar Point, Cape Carteret, Bogue and Peletier. In addition, the county is expected to receive more than $13 million in two payments.
“Our personnel have been the tip of the spear against COVID,” Chief Hunter said in the meeting. “We’ve been in people’s homes, we’ve been in the backs of ambulances, in their faces.”
He compared his workers with police officers, doctors, nurses and other essential workers who’ve been in the front lines against the pandemic and serving those who need assistance. The employees know some individuals they treat or help with fires are infected, he noted.
Some personnel have contracted the virus, Chief Hunter said, and it’s been stressful for them, their families and coworkers.
“It’s been 475 days,” Chief Hunter said of dealing with the pandemic. “It’s been chilling, to say the least” and has required alterations in important training.
In addition, he said there were unforeseen budgetary impacts, just the thing the federal money was apparently designed to alleviate.
Chief Hunter said the towns and the county could help by chipping in money for flexible health care spending plans for the department’s 21 full-time employees. The plan would provide money for things like medical exams, glasses, vitamins and other pro-active health products.
The municipalities could also consider chipping on capital purchases for future projects, Chief Hunter said.
“It could help us avoid tax increases,” as the department anticipates needing a third station in or near Peletier fairly soon. The main station is in Cedar Point, and there’s another in unincorporated Stella.
WCILCA board members were receptive, but said the agency and fire department, in their opinion, should have been eligible for direct federal funds.
“The money is coming from the state,” passed down from the federal government, board member and Cedar Point Commissioner John Nash said. He noted the WCILCA is a quasi-local government agency, created by state statute.
Board member Jeff Waters, a Cape Carteret commissioner, said per the chief’s request, it would cost about $21,000 a year to fund the flexible health care spending plan.
Chief Hunter noted that the employees would pay into it, as well.
The ARPA money must be spent by 2024, and all recipients are struggling to get solid information from the federal government on what it can be used for.
County Commissioner Robin Comer said he talked to county administration and believes the WCILCA should have been eligible to receive ARPA money directly. At the very least, he said the fire department should be eligible for reimbursement of the extra personal protection equipment it’s had to buy through the pandemic.
He said he’d like to see Chief Hunter do some additional research and work with county to see if the department can still get direct money.
Brett DeSelms of Jacksonville, the WCILCA attorney, agreed.
“You’re so unique, you may have just fallen through the cracks,” he said to the board members.
WCILCA Chairperson Will Baker, mayor of Cape Carteret, told Chief Hunter if attempts to get ARPA money don’t work out, “give the towns a chance to look at this.”
Mr. Comer said if it turns out the department does fall into the no-funds crevice, “there might be things the county and the towns can do. But let’s go through every avenue.”
Contact Brad Rich at 252-864-1532; email email@example.com; or follow on Twitter @brichccnt.