Weddington Town Council, Public Safety Committee instigate discussions
After months of controversy, the Providence Fire Department took another step toward deciding its future Tuesday, Nov. 16, when President Steve Cloutier agreed to a meeting with the board of directors from the Wesley Chapel department.
Struggling for funding while facing a shrinking fire district, Cloutier told a joint meeting of Weddington’s Town Council and Public Safety Committee that Providence is ready to talk.
“We don’t mind having that conversation at all. We’ll sit down with Wesley Chapel,” Cloutier said.
Cloutier came before the committee to address the town’s concerns about recent events at the department. The town council had tasked to determine if they felt Providence could still honor its contract with Weddington.
“Now is the time for the town to be pro-active,” committee Chair Walker Davidson said. “Is Weddington going to prop up Providnce or is Providence going to close?”
Regardless of who’s name is on the bay doors, people just want to know they’re safe, Weddington Mayor Pro Tem Daniel Barry said.
“When someone dials 911, they want someone there to put the fire out,” Barry said.
The main question for those present was how to keep the department open, without repeatedly pumping dollars into it. The town gives $210,300 to the department each year, doled out in increments much like a paycheck. Even after Union County increased fees for homes in the Providence district to $82.75 for the current fiscal year, Providence came up $58,114 short of its $517,367 budget. The county commission made up the difference.
This year, Providence was one of four Union County departments to show a shortfall. It was the second largest, behind Wingate’s $71,853 shortfall.
Cloutier told the committee currently Providence $592,000 in assets, including bank certificates of deposit.
Weddington Mayor Nancy Anderson cautioned the committee, however, the town shouldn’t expect to make demands without paying for them.
“If the town wants upgraded, enhanced services, it has to pay for it,” she said. “I anticipate the days of volunteer firefighting will soon be over.”
Cloutier agreed, adding the department has recovered from previous manpower issues.
When the Providence Board of Directors voted Aug. 15 to replace then-Chief David Banick with Andrew Ansley, eight volunteers walked out. The night shift for Providence has historically depended on volunteers, working in three man shifts. With at least four of those eight positions unfilled, the board started rotating paid firefighters from the daytime shift into one of those positions each night to balance the crews.
Currently, Cloutier said the department has 41 members, 22 paid and 19 volunteers.
Weddington spent $10,000 earlier this year to hire an outside contractor, Charlotte based Garner and Brown, to separate the station’s needs from wants in equipment. Partner Scott Garner pointed out the wall between the apparatus bay and the sleeping quarters isn’t “fire rated”, meaning it’s not built properly to slow the spread of fire from one side to the other.
That’s a problem, Cloutier said, because if a fire starts in a station, chances are it would start in the apparatus bay.
OSHA fine paid, moving on
Cloutier also said that the department has paid its reduced fine from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Earlier this year, OSHA opened an investigation after complaints were filed regarding the status of the department’s gear and equipment.
Each firefighter is required to have the correct paperwork, certifying they have the correct size respirator to use when running into a burning building. The equipment comes in small, medium and large sizes, and 11 firefighters didn’t have their proper paperwork, showing they had a respirator that fit.
The department spent $3,000 to make sure they had the proper equipment, then an additional $910 in fines. Federal officials reduced the original $1,400 fine.
“It was the past chief’s responsibility to see the tests were conducted,” Cloutier said. “We couldn’t find any of the paperwork for those 11 people.”
Doing nothing is not an option
Barry and Davidson reminded committee members and department heads of the ticking clock on the horizon, should Providence not address problems now. In 2011, the county plans to do a property revaluation. In the current economic climate, officials believe values will drop, and Providence could fall further in the hole. Already facing a deficit, the department would then have to come back to the town for help, when the council might not have anything to give.
“We’ve got a property reval coming (and with the deficit) it’s a collision ready to happen,” Davidson said.
To get Providence and Wesley Chapel leaders together, the committee set up a meeting of both boards of directors, the Public Safety Committee, the Weddington Town Council and the Wesley Chapel mayor Brad Horvath. The meeting takes place Nov. 30 at 7 p.m., at the Weddington Town Hall.
While multiple board members questioned if the Wesley Chapel department would be interested, Wesley Chapel board President Butch Plyler said that’s a given.
“Sure,we’d be interested in having that discussion with Providence,” Plyler said. “We wouldn’t say no.”