Weddington council, fire commission discuss department’s future
How will Providence volunteer fire department stay operational? Multiple groups are looking for answers and each one has a different response.
The Weddington town council took up the issue during their Monday, Jan. 9 meeting, followed two nights later by the county’s fire commission. Each discussion repeatedly came back to how the department is funded.
“What is the plan for the future of Providence fire department?” former Weddington council member Jerry McKee asked the current town board. “They’ve already been to the bank once and can’t get a loan.”
McKee advocated to restart long-dead merger talks between Providence and the Wesley Chapel fire department, asking the current council to force the issue by eliminating funding for Providence after June 30.
Former mayoral candidate and Weddington parks and recreation committee chairwoman Stephanie Belcher echoed McKee’s comments, saying it wasn’t an issue the town needed to address.
“No town in our area is contributing to the fire department,” Belcher said. “I think everyone needs to separate town responsibility from county responsibility. The town doesn’t tax us for the fire department; the county does.”
Other residents disagreed, saying public safety should be the top priority.
“I haven’t heard about priorities, except not to fund fire services,” Weddington resident Judy Johnston said, adding that a residence should be served by the closest department. “There is a cost to funding fire services. Set your priorities.”
Willow Oaks subdivision resident Jerry Fitzgerald asked why the town would consider turning the decision over to the county.
“It is ludicrous for us to give up our fire department,” Fitzgerald said. “Lets back these guys and come up with a plan to make it work.”
Weddington mayor Walker Davidson outlined four options for his board to examine, in order to address the Providence issue. The first was to do nothing, the second would create a municipal fire district, the third would redraw the fire district lines, giving Providence a larger tax base and the fourth would see the department merge with Wesley Chapel.
“We’ve got to go through this,” Davidson said. “The county has been asked to address it (and) they have not.
Weddington provided a $267,180 subsidy to Providence this year. The problem with that, for some council members is that residents who didn’t use the fire department were paying for it, due to the fact the subsidy came from the town’s general fund.
“My whole thing, we have folks paying for primary service where Providence is not their primary fire department,” Mayor Pro Tem Daniel Barry said.
Looking at solutions
The Providence fire department needs funding in place for the fiscal year starting July 1, with a current budget estimated at $523,000. 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
The question is how to find that funding. Creating a municipal fire district would mean Weddington would be responsible for drawing the fire lines and signing contracts with different departments to cover the area. The new maps, presented by Providence, doubles their coverage area, to include most of Weddington, to generate $1.3 billion worth of total property.
Under the plan, Wesley Chapel would lose $62,262, while the Stallings department would lose $9,266.
Losing property is what concerns Wesley Chapel, as the fire department is in the middle of building a new fire station, a move 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, the Wesley Chapel fire department would have to increase its tax rate in order to pay its debt.
“There’s a trickle down effect,” county commissioner Jonathan Thomas said at the fire commission meeting. “The people of Wesley Chapel will have to pay more for the same level of service and so will Stallings. That’s why I supported the merger.”
Union County Fire Marshall Neal Speer said he had questions about the Providence department’s future, if nothing happens.
“My impression is that the Providence model is not financially sustainable,” Speer said. “The Wesley Chapel side of it may not be perfect, but it’s sustainable.”
Hemby Bridge Fire Chief Johnny Blythe updated the fire commission on merger talks, explaining that discussions died out in the fall over a series of eight concerns. The issues included a request by Providence to create new by-laws and a new name for any merged department. 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.
“At this point, we haven’t had a meeting to discuss the merger because they can’t agree on the eight points,” Blythe told commission members. “I really think it’s to the point (where) its the name on the door that’s the sticking point.”
Blythe pointed out at that with property values expected to decline in the next revaluation, the tax revenue for Providence will drop as well. What he felt people didn’t understand, Blythe said, is that the fire station will be there, regardless of what name is on the door.
“The fire station would still be there (with a merger),” Blythe said. “(People) are approaching it like there won’t be a fire station on Hemby Road. One thing they need to understand is that neither Stallings or Wesley Chapel can cover that area without a station.”
Commission member Brian Rogers raised the issue of the 24-7 coverage for Providence, questioning if those served by Wesley Chapel had any concerns about the lack of a 24-7 presence at the station.
“I’ve not heard anyone complain about service,” Blythe said. “Nobody seems unhappy with their current model.”
Davidson estimated it would take the town six to eight months to go through the data and come up with a plan for Providence. To show that Weddington was dedicated to fixing the problem, the town council voted, with Werner Thomisser and Daniel Barry in opposition, to set aside $300,000 in the next budget cycle for a Providence subsidy. Fire commission members expect to discuss the issue as well once they select a chairman and vice chair for their board next month.