Move would cut portions from nearby Wesley Chapel district
Without some form of assistance, the Providence Fire Department will be out of money and options by March 2013. Providence Board of Directors President Jack Parks presented that information to a joint meeting of fire department staff, county, town and state officials Wednesday, Aug. 17. The solution endorsed by the town of Weddington, redrawing the fire district lines, would solve that problem, but increase the fire tax rate for any residents living in the Wesley Chapel fire district by a half cent for every $100 of property.
“Other municipalities will be livid, I understand (but) we have to worry about Weddington,” Weddington council member Robert Gilmartin said. “Is anybody looking at us? We’ve paid over a million dollars to keep this thing afloat.”
The new maps, presented by the Providence fire department, doubles their coverage area, to include most of Weddington. Providence would take $940 million worth of property from the Wesley Chapel district. Currently Providence has an estimated $734 million worth of property in their district. Combined, that would give them a tax base of $1.67 billion.
For the fiscal year that ended June 30, the department had a $96,000 shortfall, covered by pulling from their reserves. According to the department’s figures, Providence brought in $510,000 while incurring expenses of $606,000. With their territory in Mecklenburg shrinking, so is the funding from next door. This past 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.
Those revenues are only expected to drop between now and 2013, as the department looks to solve its compliance problem with the fire codes. 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.
Providence expects to generate $468,100 in revenue this year, Parks told the group, with a budget of $52,250. That’s not including the upgrades needed to get out of violation. After pulling from its cash reserve of $331,381, the department would be left with $276,231. Once funding disappears from Mecklenburg, they project a shortfall of $91,919 for 2013, with no reserves left to cover it.
“We will be totally depleted and out of money at that point,” Parks said. “Something’s got to happen.”
With Weddington paying more than $200,000 a year to help subsidize Providence, it’s too expensive not to cover the whole town, Gilmartin said.
“Operationally, it’s way too expensive to serve 25 percent of Weddington,” Gilmartin said.
In addition to expanding the lines, the department hopes 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 moving the lines, 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. By comparison, if the lines were moved, Providence officials believe they could operate with a 5 cent tax rate and would no longer require the town to help cover their shortfalls. Additionally, with that 5 cent rate, Parks said Providence could pay for its own repairs and not ask for assistance on that front either.
“It ain’t free,” Weddington Mayor Pro Tem Daniel Barry warned residents. “We’re gonna have to pay for it. Everybody needs to be aware we’re driving a Mercedes and eventually we will have to pay.”
Problems with moving forward
The problem facing Providence now is how their plan will impact other departments. Wesley Chapel currently 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, with a tax base currently worth $5.46 billion. 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, which Wesley Chapel board members don’t see as fair.
“To change one fire district and not change all of them is a slap in the face to Wesley Chapel,” former Wesley Chapel fire chief Terry Byrum said. “You can move these lines and the rate goes up, well then you’ve penalized these people.”
Byrum and Wesley Chapel board president Butch Plyler asked why people in their district should pay to keep Providence afloat.
The Weddington town council unanimously voted to recommend changing the fire district lines. That recommendation will go to the county’s fire commission and then on to county commissioners, who have the final authority when it comes to approving a redrawing of the lines.