Department, town to look at other options
For at least the immediate future, merger talks between Providence and Wesley Chapel fire departments have been suspended. Providence Board of Directors Chair Jack Parks called Wesley Chapel Board Chair Butch Plyler Tuesday, July 19, saying now was not a good time to work towards a merger.
“There are just too many balls in the air right now,” Parks said. He pointed to the immediate issues facing Providence, such as determining how to keep overnight fire coverage, get in compliance with the fire code for the station and see if extending the fire district lines is a possibility.
“We have some members who believe now is not the right time to have merger talks,” Parks said, adding that Providence was currently polling their full membership, but felt confident to say talks had been suspended. “There’s no point in discussing a merger until the town and residents decide what they want. Right now, they’re indicating they want 24-7 coverage. If that’s what they want, the town needs to work with the county to figure out how to fund that or say why they can’t.”
The town of Weddington meanwhile held off sending their letter to county commissioners, asking for help in redrawing the fire district lines, until merger talks had finished.
“We like our fire station, nothing against Wesley Chapel, but we like ours and we do not want to give up our overnight coverage,” Weddington mayor Nancy Anderson said. “We want to provide this service and are just trying to figure out logistically how to do it.”
After their July 11 meeting, the town council agreed to send a letter to the fire marshal and county commissioners, asking their help in redrawing the fire district lines. Anderson said the town hadn’t sent the letter yet, because at that point, merger talks were still ongoing.
“We didn’t want to do it until the merger discussion was settled,” Anderson said. “We didn’t want to be working at cross purposes, asking the county to move the lines while the two departments were talking about joining together.”
With a constantly shrinking area, it’s hard for the Providence 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. 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.
With merger talks shelved indefinitely, the Providence board will let the community determine their next step, Parks said.
“I think we’ve got to give the community an opportunity to present a plan and listen to it,” Parks said. “We’ve been informed the community is forming plans. They have learned enough that they’re reading to make their own recommendation.”
Parks said he didn’t know what those recommendations would be, ranging from requesting that the fire districts be redrawn to suggesting the town operate Providence as a municipal fire department.
“The ball’s gonna be in the town’s court now,” Parks said. “Where do they want to go next?”
If the town wants 24 hour coverage, Parks said, then somehow money’s going to have to be found to pay for upgrading the current facility, which is in violation of the fire code. Fire Marshal Neal Speer said as long as there’s progress toward a solution, he was fine with letting members stay overnight to continue the service. Parks said his board was comfortable continuing with that arrangement, as long as they kept making progress toward a long term solution.
“We want to have a funding plan in place, one that addresses our needs, so that we’re not back in the same situation five, ten years down the road,” Parks said.
Redrawing the lines
From Wesley Chapel’s perspective, Plyler said he didn’t know that there would be a lot of support for changing the fire district lines. He questioned why Wesley Chapel should be penalized to help keep Providence afloat.
“Our budget is set on the number of (homes) we cover,” Plyler said. “If all of a sudden, after the fiscal year has started, you pull some of those rooftops away, how is that fair?”
Wesley Chapel is in the middle of building a new fire station, a move the department planned for by determining how much they would bring in through fire taxes. If some of those neighborhoods are taken away to build a larger Providence department, Wesley Chapel would have to increase the tax rate in order to pay their debt.
“There will be a whole lot of Wesley Chapel people who don’t want to go up to a higher rate,” Plyler said.
Plyler said after the Weddington town meeting July 11, it appeared the focus was more towards redrawing the fire lines than considering any merger.
“I saw Weddington get involved and make a motion asking boundary lines be extended,” Plyler said. “That told me they were interested in helping Providence, not a merger.”
A merger would solve some of the problems facing Providence, Plyler said, but he felt the two departments hadn’t finished discussing the idea.
“Now, does a merger solve all the problems, no, but it solves some of them,” Plyler said.
Weddington meanwhile, doesn’t see how Providence can survive without redrawing district lines. During the July 11 meeting, town and Providence officials estimated it would take an eight cent fire tax in order to balance the Providence budget without either a merger or redrawing the lines. In the Providence fire fee district, all homes are taxed the same under a fire fee. In a fire tax district, homeowners would be taxed somewhere between 1 and 15 cents per $100 of assessed property value.
“We would need at least an 8 cent tax and the county would likely not approve anything over 5 cents,” Anderson said. The town is examining what it needs to do in order to declare a municipal fire district, Anderson said, but can’t find any language in state statutes that gives them the authority. If that fails, she said the plan is to ask the county for help.
“If we have the authority to move the lines, we’ll move them ourselves,” Anderson said. “If not, we’ll ask the county.”
In the last ten years, there’s only been one instance of redrawing lines, when Wesley Chapel and Waxhaw’s fire department swapped properties but that was an even swap that had more to do with location, rather than finances. Neither department saw a net gain from that decision. In this case, the districts would have to be redrawn, then the maps submitted to the North Carolina Department of Insurance for approval. If that approval comes, then county commissioners would have to vote on it. That doesn’t take into account questions such as who would determine where the lines move or what neighborhoods get switched.
County commissioner Jonathan Thomas, who serves as the liaison to the county’s fire commission, said it was way too early to talk about redrawing the lines.
“I think it’s way too early to say what’s going to happen with districts,” Thomas said. “The fire commission needs to look at all options.”