Department considers joint operation with Wesley Chapel, as it resolves federal investigation
As Providence Fire Department takes steps to address federal complaints, the board is open to a merger with Wesley Chapel, President Steve Cloutier said Monday, Nov. 8.
Speaking after the Weddington Town Council meeting, Cloutier said the department is currently going through a transition and wouldn’t close the door on any options.
“The idea of a merger isn’t something new, ” Cloutier said. “There’s been talk of that going back to my time on the town council (in 1997). We’re open to it.”
Cloutier added, however, that he hasn’t opened any formal discussions with Wesley Chapel, and he has no timetable for any such talks.
The county’s fire study calls for merging the two departments, but it doesn’t dictate how the merged fire district should be re-aligned or where to place any new stations. The study also doesn’t suggest how that merger would affect the current Providence station on Hemby Road.
“It certainly isn’t an issue with us, ” Welsey Chapel Fire Department President Butch Plyler said. “We’re very open. It could be worked out and turned into a good situation for both departments.”
As Providence weighs the merger idea, they got some help in funding department from the town of Weddington. The town gives $210, 300 to the department each year, doled out in increments like a paycheck. Instead, Weddington gave the remainder of the year’s funding, $162, 000, in one lump sum to the department last week. That temporarily patches Providence’s funding issue. On Nov. 7, leaders projected the department would have a $99, 694 deficit by the end of the year.
The problem comes partially due to the changes in the department’s membership roster. When the Providence Board of Directors voted Aug. 15 to replace then-Chief David Banick, eight volunteers walked out. Volunteers have handled the night shift historically, working in three man shifts. With at least four of those eight positions remaining unfilled, the board started rotating paid firefighters from the daytime shift into one of those positions each night to balance things out.
That costs an extra $160 per night, or $4, 800 for 30 days.
The budgetary issues have Weddington council members concerned about the department’s future.
“The current fire department is facing declining revenues, (and) they’re losing territory, ” Weddington Council Member Werner Thomisser said. “The town is subsidizing (them). I’m very concerned about what we’re getting for our money.”
Admitting the department has struggled financially, Cloutier said the board was looking at ways of addressing those issues.
“We continue to suffer some growing pains, (but) Providence VFD is up and running, continues to be up and running, ” Cloutier said.
OSHA investigation closed
Cloutier also closed the door on another issue the department faced after meeting Monday, Nov. 8, with a regional representative for the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Earlier this year, federal officials opened an investigation after complaints were filed regarding the status of the department’s gear and equipment.
“We had a good meeting today with the OSHA representative, and honestly, the department will be better for going through this process, ” Cloutier said.
Union County Weekly reached out to the regional federal office in Raleigh, where an official confirmed Providence had addressed all of their concerns. The official, speaking on condition of autonomy, said if any fines or penalties were levied, they would be greatly reduced.
There hasn’t been any movement however on the compliant filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. All total, four complaints were filed, with two dismissed. The remaining accusations involve charges of age discrimination. Cloutier said nobody from the fair employment agency had contacted him, to ask any questions. Speaking with four other members of the department, Union Weekly couldn’t find anyone who had been contacted to offer testimony.
New chief installed
After the sudden resignation of chief Andrew Ansley, the board of directors appointed Assistant Chief Darryl Matthews during their Sunday, Nov. 7, meeting to serve in the interim, while they search for a permanent applicant.
While acknowledging the department has its share of problems, Cloutier said Providence is moving forward.
“I’m committed to make sure everything is done above board, ” Cloutier said. “We respond to calls time and again.”