County, Weddington to discuss all options for struggling department
Residents could have the final say in determining the future of the Providence Fire Department. During their Monday, Oct. 3 meeting, County Commissioner Jonathan Thomas asked staff members to look into what it would take to hold a referendum next year on the options available. That includes a merger with the Wesley Chapel fire department, changing to a fire tax district or letting the town of Weddington establish a municipal fire district.
“I believe they should have a voice,” Thomas said of voters in the Wesley Chapel and Providence districts. If the merger went through, residents in the Wesley Chapel area would see a significant increase in their current fire bill, Thomas said. Before the county approved such a plan, he wanted to hear from those affected.
The issue was added to the agenda by County Commissioner Tracy Kuehler, who requested an update on where the county stood in regards to collecting information about moving to a fire tax district. Commissioners had asked for information in September about what it would take to move Providence to a fire tax district, from their current fire fee funded status.
“It seems whatever the result is, it’s going to be a fire tax district,” Kuehler said. “I would hope we’re still moving forward.”
The answer however was no, County Manager Cindy Coto said. She explained that after the departments broke off the latest round of merger talks, nothing else was done in regards to the fire district, as it was unclear what the next move would be.
“The fire commission had assigned (Hemby Bridge Fire Department) Chief Blythe to try and bring Providence and Wesley Chapel together,” Coto said. “Since that did not succeed, I don’t know that any other steps were taken.”
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.
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.
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.
During their Oct. 3 meeting, county commissioners asked staff to collect information as to what would be needed for a referendum, along with the steps involved with moving Providence to a fire tax district. Commissioners will also meet with Weddington’s town council Oct. 10 at 4:30 p.m, in the Weddington United Methodist Church’s Helms Hall to discuss the issue.