Providence, Wesley Chapel fire departments to vote on continuing merger talks
If both boards agree to continue talks, a steering committee to examine a potential merger of Providence and Wesley Chapel’s fire departments could be in place by Dec. 13.
The decision cam Nov. 30, at a Weddington Public Safety Committee meeting, attended by members of both departments, the Wesley Chapel town council, county and town officials.
“We’re not going to solve the problem tonight, but we can start the process,” Public Safety Committee Chairman Walker Davidson said.
The county’s fire study calls for merging the two departments. However, 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 give an idea of how that merger would affect the current Providence station on Hemby Road.
Providence has struggled financially in recent months, with the department looking at a $99,694 deficit, members were told Nov. 7 at the board of directors meeting. Weddington helped temporarily solve that problem, by giving the remainder of the year’s funding, $162,000, in one lump sum to the department. The town pays $210,300 to Providence each year. Concerned about the department’s ability to sustain itself long term, the town pushed for Providence and Wesley Chapel to discuss a merger.
The problem, Wesley Chapel Fire Department President Butch Plyler said, Providence’s continued operation doesn’t have a concrete cost.
“I think the fair (question) is how much?” Plyler said. “Until you get a number and see how much you would need to operate the department, I think we’re talking rather than acting.”
No studies have been done yet to determine the cost of operating Providence as it is on a yearly basis, either as a stand-alone department or as part of a larger Wesley Chapel operation. The department needs a new cost study because it has lost a number of volunteers. When the Providence Board of Directors voted Aug. 15 to replace then-Chief David Banick with Andrew Ansley, eight volunteers turned in their gear and walked out. The night shift for Providence has historically been made up of volunteers, working in three man shifts. With at least four of those eight positions still unfilled, the board started rotating paid firefighters from the daytime shift into one of those positions each night for balance.
That’s an extra cost of $160 per night for the department. Multiplied over a monthly span, that comes out to $4,800 for 30 days. Budget projections would have to be reworked to determine what would happen to taxpaying customers in the event of a merger.
Wesley Chapel operates on a fire tax, while Providence operates on a fire fee. The state has ordered all fire fees eliminated by July 1.
However, if Wesley Chapel absorbs the Providence department, it’s almost a guarantee its fire tax rate would have to increase to pay extra firefighters and repairing Providence’s equipment and 25-year-old station.
“Any change is going to affect (Wesley Chapel) citizens,” Wesley Chapel Mayor Brad Horvath said. “What I don’t want to see is the taxpayers hit with (a larger) bill.”
That problem will be one examined in coming months. The only other option, however, would be to pull extra dollars from the county’s fund balance to handle the cost. With the county facing a tight budget situation, it’s unclear exactly how much would be available or if that would even be a viable option.
The respective boards for Providence and Wesley Chapel will vote on moving forward with the merger at their December meetings. If they approve the idea, then Plyler and Providence President Steve Cloutier would come before the Weddington town council Dec. 13 to provide a list of those selected for the steering committee.
As the department looks at the merger proposal, two more members from Providence’s board of directors tendered their resignations in recent weeks. Jim Weiland filed his in early November, followed Nov. 29 by Lori Elliot.
“I find myself in an untenable position,” Elliot wrote. “The majority of the board has failed to respond to blatant operational flaws in the department. Despite my continued and vociferous suggestions to alter this path of ignorance, the board continues down the same road.”
Elliot cited the ongoing Equal Employment Opportunity Commission investigation, as well as previous federal occupation safety complaints, as part of the operational flaws. Earlier this year, the U.S. Safety and Health Administration investigated complaints about the department’s gear and equipment. Those issues were addressed, and the department was fined. Both Weiland and Elliot had supported Banick and opposed the board’s decision to appoint Ansley chief.
Meanwhile, the federal equal employment complaint remains active. Firefighter Bill Schmidt, who filed the complaint, informed the board via e-mail Sunday, Nov. 28, that the agency has given him the authorization to settle with the board.
“(At) this time, the case from the EEOC has been sent to their mediation officers, lawyers and investigators,” Schmidt said in an e-mail to the board. “To let the department avoid a trial by a jury, I am giving you a chance to settle and negotiate.”
Schmidt put his cost to end the dispute at $750,000. He planned to finish his career with 40 years at Providence and is six years short of that, Schmidt said, so he requested $100,000 for each of those years, plus $150,000 in fees for pain and suffering. Additionally, he calls for the entire board to resign. Control of the department would then be transferred to the town of Weddington, at his request.