Town council reverses previous decision
Less than two months after voting to create a municipal fire district, the Weddington town council shut it down.
At their Monday, Nov. 14, meeting, council members voted 3 to 1, with Mayor Pro Tem Daniel Barry dissenting, to rescind their earlier vote to move forward with a district.
The decision came after council member Werner Thomisser read a breakdown of the cost of maintaining 24-hour coverage, currently at $267,180 per year. With the department needing improvements to its station, Thomisser estimated Weddington residents could see a fire-district tax of 7 or 8 cents per $100 of assessed value.
“The objective is to deliver exceptional fire and emergency medical services to the citizens of Weddington while maintaining the lowest possible fire tax,” Thomisser said.
Fellow council member Jerry McKee made the motion to rescind consideration of a fire district. McKee, who made the original motion to pursue the fire district, lost his seat in the Nov. 8 election.
“I find these figures astounding,” McKee said. “I would oppose as a resident going to 7 cents or whatever it’s going to be. In these economic times, we need to be careful raising taxes.”
The figures should not have surprised anyone. At meetings on July 10 and 11 and Aug. 17, Providence Volunteer Fire Department President Jack Parks presented residents and town council members the same number that Thomisser used Monday night.
Thomisser and McKee attended the July 11 and Aug. 17 meetings.
But Thomisser presented his numbers as new Monday night. “Before you buy something, you’ve got to know what the cost is,” he said. “A tax is a tax.”
For the fiscal year that ended June 30, the Providence department had a $96,000 shortfall, which the department board covered with its reserves. According to the department’s figures, Providence brought in $510,000, while incurring expenses of $606,000.
With its territory in Mecklenburg shrinking, so is the funding from next door. In the 2010-11 year, which ended June 30, Mecklenburg gave the department $87,500 for fire protection and $12,000 for emergency-medical support. Next year, Mecklenburg officials expect to drop funding for fire service to $65,000 and eliminate emergency-medical funding. All total, Providence projects it will need $294,000 for salaries, with Weddington providing $235,000.
The department also expects to spend even more reserves to bring its station into compliance with fire codes.
In 2008, the Weddington town council agreed to pay for three firefighters to stay overnight to increase response time to 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.
Providence expects to generate $468,100 in revenue this year, with a budget of $520,250. That doesn’t include the cost of fire-code improvements. After pulling from its cash reserve of $331,381, the department will have $276,231 remaining.
Once Mecklenburg drops funding altogether, expected in 2013, the department projects a shortfall of $91,919 and no reserves left to cover it.
Since Providence fell short of funds this year, town officials should expect the department to fall short again next year, McKee said. “You figure they’re gonna be at least $50,000 to $75,000 short again,” he said. “Their budget is probably gonna be over $600,000.”
McKee asserted that Providence officials underestimated the cost of the fire district, saying they couldn’t function with a 3.5-cent tax rate.
But Providence officials didn’t ask for a 3.5-cent rate at the earlier meetings.
At the Aug. 17 meeting, Chief Parks said Providence could operate with a 5-cent tax rate if the fire district lines were redrawn to double the Providence coverage area, to include most of Weddington. In that case, Providence would take $940 million worth of property from the Wesley Chapel district.
In the earlier July 10 meeting at the Providence station, Parks cautioned if the boundaries remain the same, Providence would need a 7-cent tax rate to support operations and pay for fire-code improvements.
Pushing for a merger
Instead of a fire district, McKee and Thomisser pushed for a merger between Providence and the Wesley Chapel fire departments. Thomisser, who had previously opposed the merger, said the idea of keeping taxes low changed his mind.
“If Wesley Chapel and Providence were to merge, the tax rate would stay at 3.5 cents,” Thomisser said.
Merger talks between the two departments ended in October, after the departments’ boards couldn’t agree on eight issues.
To his knowledge, McKee said, all but the name of the station and the number of Providence members on the new board has since been addressed.
In September, the Weddington town council heard about those two concerns as well as 24-hour coverage at the fire department, which Wesley Chapel doesn’t offer.
McKee and Thomisser also did not explain Monday how a merged department could survive with a 3.5-cent tax rate, since the Providence fire station will still need repairs and Wesley Chapel will still need additional staffing.