Weddington residents create websites, groups for and against a municipal fire district
The one thing the two sides in the debate over how to fund Providence fire department can agree on is the fact they don’t want it to go out of business. Residents just have different views on the best way to move forward.
For Monica Rushton, the answer’s simple. She just wants to be served by the department closest to her home and doesn’t want to have to pay for another department’s expenses. Rushton and her husband live a quarter of a mile from Providence, but their home is in the Wesley Chapel service district. When her husband had a heart attack, Rushton said it took ten minutes for Wesley Chapel’s firefighters to arrive and an additional two minutes for emergency medical technicians to get on scene. Since Providence wasn’t called out, the department right down the street couldn’t help.
“It’s not Wesley Chapel’s fault they can’t get here faster,” Rushton said. “They did a wonderful, professional job when they arrived and I’m grateful. But if my neighbor’s child falls into a pool, no matter how good they are, they just wouldn’t get here as fast as Providence.”
For Rushton and some other residents, they feel the fire district lines need to be changed, so the closest department is the one that responds to a call. With Providence set to run out of funding by March 2013, she questions if that will be possible unless the town launches a municipal fire district.
“The fact people are discussing this in terms of politics annoys me,” Rushton said. “Any two year old can take a compass and draw a map, so that the closest fire department responds to calls. I’m not interested in protecting someone’s turf. I’m interested in protecting my family.”
The Providence board of directors estimates its budget for the fiscal year starting July 1 will be $523,000. The town is in discussions to consider funding $300,000 of that. 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.
Other residents say it’s not the town’s job to pay for fire services, believing the best method to solve the funding issue is to revive merger talks between the Providence and Wesley Chapel departments.
“If these were two companies, say they both made the same (product), it’s a no brainer,” Weddington resident David Basri said. “You would just say the smaller company will merge with the larger one. Providence is not financially viable right now. It makes more sense for us to consolidate.”
Basri’s problem with a municipal fire district is that it makes the town responsible for the department’s financial future. If some of the department’s equipment breaks down, Basri said he’s concerned the town would have to raise taxes in order to pay for replacements.
He and a group of six other residents created the website www.westernunionfiresafety.org to present their case, as to why a merger makes the most sense. There’s a separate website set up by members of the Providence board, including recordings from town council and county meetings, explaining their point of view as well. That website is www.weddingtonfireservice.com.
“We would really like the town to get out of the fire service business,” Basri said. “The town kind of backed into this situation. They started donating $25,000 to the department and now it’s up to more than $265,000. As Providence keeps getting deeper and deeper into the hole, Weddington keeps writing bigger and bigger checks.”
Basri and his group question if either Providence or Wesley Chapel truly attempted to discuss a merger over the last year of talks.
“To me, neither board approached talks with any focus,” Basri said. “These are not private companies, Both are close to 100 percent funded by public money. If a merger occurs, all the firefighters stay, all the EMTs stay. Everything stays except the board.”
Basri said he was offended by the letter Providence presented to Weddington town council members Feb. 13, where they announced the fire department’s board had voted not to consider a merger.
“It is absurd for nine people, by simply writing a letter, to dictate tax policy,” Basri said. “They have the right to do that but it’s just down right offensive.”
He also pointed out that if a fire district is created, Providence wouldn’t be the only department affected. The new maps as currently drawn up, would double the Providence coverage area, to include most of Weddington. Providence would take $940 million worth of property from the Wesley Chapel district. Wesley Chapel just completed construction on their new fire station, one they budgeted for based on the current funds available, Basri said. By taking territory away from them, Wesley Chapel will have to raise their fire tax rate.
Rushton argues however that it’s not Weddington’s responsibility to take care of Wesley Chapel’s needs, to pay for their new station.
“The idea of a merger seems to be little more than turf protection for Wesley Chapel,” Rushton said. “I think the merger is their attempt to keep control of the tax dollars.”
She questioned what benefits Weddington residents would receive from a merger.
“You want your kids to go to school down the street, not across town,” Rushton said. “I’m not going to buy my groceries in Charlotte, I do that here in Weddington. I don’t know why it’s not clear that we want to keep our local fire department too?”