General Assembly approves county’s request
Union County’s fire fees are no longer in danger of disappearing next year. House Bill 97, filed after a request by county commissioners, was approved Wednesday, June 1 by both bodies of the North Carolina General Assembly. The bill removes the “sunset clause” established during last year’s state budget negotiations.
Looking for a way of plugging a funding gap last year, county commissioners asked the state for the ability to increase fire fees departments are allowed to charge to a maximum of $100. To get support for a local bill, however, all of a county’s delegation has to support it. In order to get the full delegation’s support, Union County had to agree to a July 1, 2012 deadline when all fees would be removed. With new delegates in place, the county asked this year for the clause to be removed and the local delegation agreed, filing a bill to remove that clause.
Eliminating the clause doesn’t help all departments however. In the proposed county budget, set for a public hearing Monday, June 6, county manager Cindy Coto notes that three departments are struggling to stay financially afloat, even with the money generated from fire fees. Providence, Allens Crossroads and Wingate fire departments will all fail to meet their budget, even with the fire fees.
“Funding for the Providence VFD has serious issues,” Coto wrote in her recommendations for the budget. She pointed out the department has lost funding from Mecklenburg County, which equates to $87,500 this year. The town of Weddington has discussed assisting the department with funding, but nothing has been decided. “The County cannot make up this level of shortfall funding for the Providence VFD,” Coto wrote. She recommended the county provide $159,036 to Providence, far less than the department needs to remain solvent on its own. Coto recognized this and said Providence needs to follow the fire study’s recommendations. “(I) would hope that the department could merge with another department as suggested in the fire study,” Coto wrote.
Discussions have been going on for several months between Providence and the Wesley Chapel fire departments about a potential merger. Those talks are far from finalizing a deal, however, as members of both departments are split about the idea.
Allens Crossroads meanwhile would not survive through 2012 without additional help from the county. The department’s total budget comes in at $169,410. Even after increasing the fire fees in that district to the maximum of $100 per home, only $104,937 would be generated. It’s not a problem of overspending either, as the department has cut its budget by $49,283 since 2008.
“I feel they have done everything they could do as a department to live within their means,” Coto said. To help the department survive until another solution can be found, Coto recommended the county provide an extra $39,413 for Allens Crossroads, the only department she recommended a shortfall payment for.
The third department struggling to make budget is Wingate. The department’s budget has increased by an estimated $60,000 since 2008 and Coto pointed out that even with the increase in fire fees to $100 for the district, the department will have to make budget cuts to survive.
“I want to be consistent in our approach to funding fire departments,” Coto said. “To determine the fire department budgets, I did not include pay increases, additional staffing or new equipment unless it could be funded by current revenue sources. My goal in funding the fire departments was not to increase the subsidy from the County General Fund and eliminate shortfall funding in the long term.”
Other departments also facing problems
Funding problems exist for many of the departments using fire fees. Coto recommended funding each based only on what they need to continue current operations, not on requests for additional manpower or equipment. Bakers will increase fees to $65 per single family dwelling, Beaver Lane will move to $76.17, Fairview will be $70.08 and Stacks Road will see an increase to $78.80 under the proposed budget.
Griffith Road, Jackson, Lanes Creek, New Salem and Unionville all reduced their fire fee. Additionally, all five departments using a fire tax – Hemby Bridge, Mineral Springs, Stallings, Waxhaw and Wesley Chapel – expect to break even this year. Hemby Bridge will have a tax rate of 4 cents per $100 of assessed property, Springs will have a 3.1 cent tax rate, Stallings will come in at 4.2 cents, Waxhaw Fire Department will be at 3.7 cents and Wesley Chapel will be at 2.2 cents. Both Stallings and Wesley Chapel kept the same tax rate from last year, even with Wesley Chapel’s construction of a new fire station. The other three barely increased, with hikes of less than three tenths of a cent. The public hearing on the proposed county budget is set for Monday, June 6 at 7 p.m during the County Commissioners’ meeting.