Weddington, county address fire service in different ways
The Weddington town council hopes to make a decision on funding the Providence Volunteer Fire Department by April 2.
Tired of what they saw as more than a year of repeated missteps and delays by county commissioners, Weddington council members opted Monday, March 12, to go forward on their own.
“We went to the county repeatedly to ask for their help and did not receive direction,” Mayor Pro Tem Dan Barry said. “All of a sudden, when the municipal government says we’re gonna stand up and take control of the situation, the county commission says ‘Oh no, we want the ball back.’ You forfeited that right.”
At the center of the discussion is how to keep the Providence Volunteer Fire Department afloat. Providence 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 used. By March 2013, unless funding can be found, Providence will be out of operational cash.
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.
During the Weddington meeting Monday night, members of groups supporting both sides spoke to the town council. David Basri spoke for the group in support of a merger. His 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 questioned what, if anything, would change if a merger took place, besides the name on the door and the people in charge.
On the other side, Andrew Moore presented the case representing a group in support of a municipal fire district. Moore questioned how Weddington residents would benefit from a merger, as it would mean they would be responsible to help pay for the new Wesley Chapel fire station on Waxhaw-Indian Trail Road. Also, currently Weddington taxes include the cost of 24-7 staffed coverage at Providence Fire Department. After a merger, Weddington residents would have to pay the fire tax, plus an additional cost if they want 24-7 coverage, Moore said, highlighting previous comments from Wesley Chapel fire department board members.
After listening to both groups, the town council discussed and voted to hold a special meeting April 2 at the Weddington United Methodist Church to present their research and possibly vote to approve or reject moving forward with a municipal district.
“We have been doing a lot of research,” Mayor Walker Davidson said, pointing out that time and again over the last year the council had tried to work with Union County, but kept getting rejected. “We can make it a little better than that process,” Davidson said.
The only opposition to moving forward was from council member Werner Thomisser, who said he couldn’t justify any situation where he might have to raise taxes.
“I ran on a platform (where) I said I would not raise taxes,” Thomisser said. “Now all of a sudden this fire thing has been cast upon us. What I’m trying to do is (find) the best possible fire service at the most cost effective price.”
Thomisser also questioned arguments from the pro fire district side that said voters had already spoken, arguing that with less than 20 percent of the population casting a ballot the town didn’t have an accurate picture of what residents wanted.
All total, 668 people voted for Davidson and 531 voted for council member Pam Hadley, both of which ran on a ticket supporting the move to a municipal district. By comparison, the town has a population of 9,514.
Fire commission plans meeting
The same night that Weddington was voting on moving forward, the county fire commission established plans to hold its own meeting with residents. The only problem is the fire commission will meet April 5, three days after the Weddington council will have voted either for or against moving forward with a district.
“It’s not just the town of Weddington,” fire commission chairman Johnny Blythe said, adding that Marvin, Wesley Chapel, Indian Trail and Stallings would all be impacted by a decision to create a municipal fire district. “What happens with them? There’s a lot of things that have to be looked at, that nobody has looked at.”
Blythe proposed, and fire commission members agreed, to hold a meeting April 5 at Weddington High, where the three fire departments would be invited to present their data. County staff members would be on hand to answer any questions.
Weddington council members asked why this information wasn’t made available when the town originally asked in 2011. They also questioned what new information would be presented, as each of the three fire departments involved have come and presented their information at Weddington town council meetings.
At the end of the day, council members say they can’t force two departments to merge and they have to look out for what’s best for Weddington residents.
“I can’t force anybody to merge,” council member Barbara Harrison said. “Just what kind of clout does the fire commission have? Can it force a merger? Can it force anything?” She questioned why the town should wait until the fire commission meeting, which she saw as another tactic by the county to stall a decision.
“If it’s nothing more than to have people stand up at Weddington High and say what they’ve said here, what new information are we going to be told?”
By a 3 to 1 vote, with Werner Thomisser in opposition, the Weddington council voted to go forward, both with the meeting April 2 and also with a newsletter to be sent to residents prior to the meeting, detailing the council’s research on the subject.