Through series of meetings, department, town try to find answers
Unless something changes, the Providence Volunteer Fire Department will struggle to fund itself for the near future. That was one of the facts outlined over two nights of meetings July 10 and 11 in Weddington. Residents turned out en masse for both the department’s board of directors meeting July 10 and the Weddington town council meeting July 11, as the subject of funding continually came up. To keep the department from being cited for fire code violations, the Weddington town council agreed to send a letter to Fire Marshal Neal Speer and county commissioners, saying they were working with the department on a solution. In a previous discussion, Speer had told Union County Weekly as long as the groups were working on a solution, the department wouldn’t be cited.
“Right now, we’ve got a problem,” Providence Board of Directors President Jack Parks told residents July 10. “You can walk down this road and in a minute, you’ll be out of our district.”
With a constantly shrinking area, it’s hard for the department to survive financially. When the department, which started in Mecklenburg, made the jump to Union County, fire districts had already been drawn for the other departments in the area. That left little for Providence and it shows in the financials.
For the fiscal year that ended June 30, the department had a $96,000 shortfall. According to figures shared by Parks, the department brought in $510,000 while incurring expenses of $606,000. With their territory in Mecklenburg shrinking, so is the funding from next door. This year, Mecklenburg gave $87,500 for fire protection and $12,000 for EMS support. Next year, Mecklenburg’s funding is expected to drop to $65,000 for fire and another $12,000 for EMS. All total, Providence projects it will need $294,000 for salaries, with Weddington providing $235,000.
An issue for Providence critics is they don’t want to fund renovations for a fire station that may not exist in a few years.Another issue facing the department is the number of firefighters. There are 39 total, according to Parks, with 18 volunteers. Three paid staff members stay at the station between 6a.m to 6 p.m., then the night staff includes one paid staffer and two volunteers.
In 2008, the Weddington town council agreed to pay for three firefighters to stay overnight, for a quick response time to local fires. The building has been out of compliance since then, as it doesn’t have a sprinkler system, a fire wall or a staircase to the sleeping quarters that have been used.
“We can’t do enough barbeques, we can’t do enough bake sales to fund what we need,” Parks said.
One of the things the department hopes to do in order to fix their financial problem is to switch from a fire fee district to a fire tax. In the Providence fire fee district, all homes are taxed the same. In a fire tax district, homeowners would be taxed somewhere between 1 and 15 cents per $100 of assessed property value. If Providence operated on its own, without merging with another department, the board of directors and town of Weddington officials estimate it would take a tax rate of 8 cents per $100 to balance the books.
“To me that is more logical, more evenly spread,” Providence Board member Ken Evans said.
Residents who came out to the Sunday night meeting were very vocal, saying they didn’t mind paying more.
“That’s pretty cheap when you’re talking about our homes and families,” one resident said. Another echoed that he would gladly write the department a check on the spot. Board members and town council members reminded the crowd that would be nearly four times what they currently pay in taxes and asked if they were ok with it. The crowd of 32 people responded with a definite yes.
Residents want town VFD
The next night, a crowd turned out for the regular Weddington town council meeting, packing out Helms Hall at Weddington United Methodist Church. The council voted to send a letter to county commissioners, requesting they redraw the fire districts. Also they agreed to look at what it would take to switch to a municipal fire tax district.
“Now that we have 24-7 fire service, we want to keep it,” Weddington resident Brenda Stone said during public comment. “I want the quickest response.” She asked the council to spend money on the fire department before spending it on laptops, streetlights or landscaping.
“I am not against helping fire departments, but I am strongly opposed to the way it’s (been) done,” Weddington resident Bill Price said. He called for more accountability from Providence, before the town gives any funding.
“I believe most of the community is willing to pay (for a fire tax),” Weddington resident Judy Johnston said. “I hear so much talk about numbers and statistics. It’s not rocket science. This is a town and we need to start getting our act together and act like a community.”
She presented a petition to the council with 50 signatures, asking them to do what it takes to save the fire department.