Providence department says merger talks dead, town weighs options
The town of Weddington wants to take control of its fire services. During a special meeting Monday, Sept. 19, town council members heard from members of the public, as well as from both the Providence and Wesley Chapel fire department board presidents before deciding to move forward with discussions on creating a municipal fire district.
“What I keep hearing our citizens say to us is no matter whose name is on the door, they want great service,” Weddington mayor Nancy Anderson said. “They want Weddington to be in charge.”
Anderson’s point was echoed by residents who said they’re tired of being next to a fire department that can’t respond to calls at their homes.
“I live not even a half mile away from Providence, but that fire department would not respond to a call at my house,” Weddington resident Cary Ribach said. “The (proposed) map seems to make more sense.”
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.
That proposal was rejected by the county fire commission, which appointed Hemby Bridge Fire Department chief Johnny Blythe to re-open merger talks between Providence and Wesley Chapel. Hoping to address funding issues for Providence and gain control over the fire lines, Weddington’s town council collected information during the special meeting about what was required to create a municipal district.
“(Weddington) must release itself from (current) agreements,” town attorney Anthony Foxx said, explaining what would need to happen before the town created a fire district. Currently Weddington contracts with Providence and Wesley Chapel fire districts, through the county’s system. Before the town can create its own district, Foxx said, it needs to get the county’s permission to pull out of its current one.
If the county refuses, the only other option, Foxx said, is to request Rep. Craig Horn or Sen. Tommy Tucker to create a local act at the state level, granting Weddington the authority to govern fire services in town.
During an earlier meeting, Rep. Horn said he would ask his staff to research what would be required to put such an act together.
Merger talks dead again?
Creating a municipal fire district seems to be one of the only options left for Providence. Weddington council members heard from both Providence board president Jack Parks and Wesley Chapel board president Butch Plyler Sept. 19, with Parks outlining points he felt created problems the two boards couldn’t get past.
“We’ve been talking since February and there wasn’t a lot of traction made,” Parks said. “The way Wesley Chapel operates is good for them, but it would not work for Providence.”
The issues included a request to create new by-laws and a new name for any merger. Without new by-laws and a new name for the new department, Parks said, the board felt it was basically being involved in a takeover.
The third issue included 24 hour staffed coverage at the fire department, which Wesley Chapel currently doesn’t have. Additionally, Providence requested an opportunity to rotate members off the joint board after three years, with a total of one third of the new board to come from Providence. In earlier steering committee talks, the two sides had agreed on three members, but the full department rejected that proposal when it was brought back. Finally, Providence said they’ve asked for Wesley Chapel’s financial information, beyond just the yearly budget, for the last eight months and hadn’t got it.
“We want to see financial information from Wesley Chapel,” Parks said. “We really need to look at what debt is being assumed.”
Plyler said his department felt they could discuss some of the items, but didn’t see all of them as needed.
“Is a name gonna make you a better fire department?” he asked, also questioning why an entirely new set of by-laws would be needed. “Don’t throw everything out and start over,” Plyler said.
Council members said they felt the time for talking about a merger was past and the town should consider a fire district.
“I get the feeling Providence has done everything possible to participate in a merger, but you need two people to dance,” Weddington town council member Werner Thomisser said.
The council will discuss fire districts during a special joint session with county commissioners Oct. 10.