Future of fire department in its own hands, Public Safety Committee
The Weddington Town Council decided Monday, Jan. 17, to turn over negotiations about the future of the Providence Volunteer Fire Department to the town’s Public Safety Committee and the chiefs of the Providence and Wesley Chapel fire departments.
The board also learned the first merger meeting takes place Wednesday, Jan. 26. A steering committee, consisting of members from both fire departments, will meet at 7 p.m. with the Public Safety Committee to examine how a merger could work.
“We are out of this now,” Mayor Nancy Anderson told Town Council members during the special meeting. “It’s now in the hands of the steering committee and fire chiefs.”
The town council’s fire liaison will get involved when appropriate, she added.
A county fire study called for merging the two departments, however the study 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.
Providence has struggled financially in recent months, with the department running into a $99,694 deficit in November. Weddington helped temporarily by giving the department $162,000, the remainder its funding for the fiscal year, which runs from July 1 to June 30. 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.
With Mecklenburg County cutting funding for the limited amount of unincorporated area that Providence covers, the burden to fund fire services falls elsewhere.
The Mecklenburg cut “puts a lot of pressure on Weddington,” Anderson said.
Officials have not determined how much Providence would need to remain a stand-alone department or merge with into a larger Wesley Chapel operation. Expenses have increased as the Providence department’s membership changed.
When the Providence Board of Directors voted Aug. 15 to replace then-Chief David Banick with Andrew Ansley, eight volunteers resigned. 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 unfilled, the board started rotating paid firefighters from the daytime shift into one of those positions each night to balance things out.
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.
Wesley Chapel gets its funding through on a fire tax, while Providence operates on a fire fee, which will no longer be viable. The state has ordered all fire fees eliminated by July 1.
If Wesley Chapel absorbs the Providence department, officials almost certainly will have to increase the fire tax rate, to pay more firefighters and repair Providence’s equipment and 25-year-old station.
The only other option, however, would entail county commissioners allocating more money from the county’s general fund balance. With the county facing a tight budget year, officials have said how much would be available – if any.