Approval means lower interest rate for new fire station
Residents of Wesley Chapel’s fire district could be looking at a fire tax hike, in order to pay for the department’s new station. Butch Plyler, president of the department’s board of directors, cautioned commissioners Monday, Feb. 7 that due to delays, he couldn’t promise a tax increase wouldn’t be needed in order to pay for the station.
“Had the board given us our permits last year, we would have saved at least 1 percent on our loan,” Plyler said. “Had we (built) at that time, it would have been enough.”
For more than two years, the department has attempted to replace the 39-year-old station. The current facility lacks air conditioning, the septic tank backs up and the two fire trucks can barely fit inside the bay. The new facility will offer 12 cubicles for sleeping quarters, which the current station lacks; game and training rooms; offices; storage; and an updated kitchen.
Charlotte based firm Edison Ford won the contract to build the new station with its $3.824 million bid. The department outlined in its budget that it will pay for the new station by substituting one payment for another. This year marks the last year Wesley Chapel has to make $360,000 in payments on its two fire trucks. With construction costs on the rise, Plyler said, he couldn’t guarantee the department would be able to pay for the station without an increase in the district’s 2.2 cent fire tax.
“There’s not a lot of wiggle room,” he said.
Plyler was before county commissioners asking for their approval of the department’s loan. With county support, such a loan can get tax exempt financing, resulting in a much lower interest rate. The board voted to support the loan 4-1, with commissioner Tracy Kuehler in opposition.
“There is a difference between want and need,” Kuehler said. “There is a difference between what is deserved and what is feasible.”
Kuehler argued that the department should have cut expectations and instead built a smaller station for $2 million, the number mentioned in the county’s fire study for a station that would fit both current and short term future needs.
Plyler argued that was the difference, that the department planned to build once for long term needs, during a construction climate where prices are low.
“It’s a 50 year building, it’s not something we just thought up,” Plyler said. “You want a firefighter to come back to something like a home. The build we have there now is unsuitable.”
Pending merger, other issues
A possible tax hike is just one of the changes residents in the Wesley Chapel district could see over the next year. In January, Wesley Chapel agreed to discuss a potential merger with the Providence Volunteer Fire Department. A steering committee, consisting of members from both fire departments, held their first meeting with the Weddington Public Safety Committee Jan. 26 and continues to explore how a merger would work.
Last year’s 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 of 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.
Providence exists as a fire fee district, while Wesley Chapel operates on a fire tax. If the merger does go through, the question also would be raised as to how the expanded district would be funded. Keeping the Providence fire fee would depend on state lawmakers.
County commissioners passed a resolution Jan. 4, asking the state to repeal the so-called “sunset clause” on fire fees. To get the maximum allowed fire fees doubled, Union County agreed last spring to end the practice of using fire fees to help fund local departments by 2012. Faced now with decisions on how to keep the departments operating, the new commission majority said it was too early to take something off the table.
To eliminate funding shortages at local fire departments, Union County needs to change the current financing mechanism for all departments. That would mean eliminating inadequate fire fees that result in the county having to bail out departments that don’t receive enough money to pay their bills. Bailouts cost the county fund $700,000 in the 2009-10 fiscal year.
The Union County state delegation must support a repeal of the sunset clause however. Former Union County Rep. Curtis Blackwood, an opponent of fire fees, fought while in office to maintain the sunset clause, but his successor, Craig Horn, said he would like to see a plan in place before making a decision.
“What is unclear to me is what funding strategy does the Board of County Commissioners recommend for our fire service in Union County,” Horn, who also has served on the fire commission, said. “Clearly the present system is inadequate. Most of the fire departments’ (funding) are clearly inadequate, thus requiring substantial subsidy from county tax revenues.”