A 2018 budget for the Metropolitan Emergency Communications Association that does not include pay raises was approved Thursday by the MECA Board. At the same time, board members agreed to revisit the issue later this year and see if additional money can be found.

The board consists of Jefferson County Judge Henry “Hank” Wilkins IV, Pine Bluff Mayor Shirley Washington, Pine Bluff Police Chief Ivan Whitfield, Pine Bluff Fire and Emergency Services Chief Shauwn Howell, Jefferson County Sheriff Gerald Robinson, White Hall Mayor Noel Foster, who represents the 911 Administrative Board, and Karen Blevins, the director of the Office of Emergency Management, who also supervises MECA.

The board was offered two options, one without a raise for employees and the second with the raises; Wilkins, who is serving as chairman this year, urged them to adopt the second option.

The first option set the 2018 budget at $1,013,338 and the second at $1,034,810, a difference of $21,472.

Wilkins said that it was important to give raises to dispatchers not only next year but for the next few years because MECA has been losing dispatchers to other counties who pay more.

“We need to keep not only the new ones but those who have been there for a while because that’s important for training and supervision,” Wilkins said.

One of the dispatchers that left had eight years experience, Wilkins said. The MECA budget was one of those that was discussed during a meeting of the Pine Bluff City Council’s Public Safety Committee earlier this month, and Whitfield asked which budget the committee approved — the one with no increases or the one with the increases.

“Whatever they approved is all we can vote for,” he said.

Keidra Burrell, who is an assistant to Washington and represented the mayor during Thursday’s meeting, contacted city Finance Director Steve Miller, who reported that the budget request the committee considered did not include the raises. The budget that was voted on by the Public Safety Committee set a 2018 budget for MECA at $717,038. An additional $15,000 would be needed to implement the pay raises.

MECA is funded by fees collected by phone companies on cellular and land line telephones and by the user agencies, with Pine Bluff paying 70.76 percent of the total agency funding. City officials have questioned how that percentage was arrived at and Charles “Cooter” Failla, who is also on the 911 board and was on the board when MECA was formed, said it was based on population and usage.

Whitfield said when MECA was formed, Pine Bluff was “financially strong” and former Mayor Jerry Taylor and former County Judge Jack Jones worked out an agreement wherein Pine Bluff would pay the amount they pay and MECA employees would work for the county.

Foster, who represented the 911 board said he favored giving raises but added that those funds are deceasing every year.

“Hopefully, between the mayor (Washington) and the judge, we can figure out a way,” Foster said.

One item also mentioned was a $5,000 figure that MECA collects annually from the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff to handle their emergency communications, and Blevins said that amount has not changed in the last 10 to 12 years. Sheriff’s Maj. Lafayette Woods Jr., who was representing Robinson, said, “I would like to see if we can come back and revisit those raises.”

Burrell said that the city’s Ways and Means Committee has already been charged with finding additional money to pay firefighters for having an EMT certification that was not included in the mayor’s proposed budget.

“Ways and Means may be able to find the extra funds,” she said.

After the meeting, Wilkins said: “The budget vote today was not adequate to meet the safety demands of the first responders and citizens. I am endeavoring to create a environment where we are able to hire competent people, get them trained, and be able to keep them long-term.”

The judge’s chief of staff, Lloyd Franklin II, also said Wilkins has called another meeting of the board at 10:30 a.m. Tuesday to revisit the adopted 2018 budget as the board continues their search to find additional funding for MECA employees. That meeting will be in the EOC room at MECA.