by Josh Lanier
WEDDINGTON – Town leaders voted this week to begin negotiations to create a municipal fire district.
After more than a year of discussions and debate, the vote moves the town closer to clarifying its fire service and creating a more unified fire protection coverage map. But critics fear the move could become a logistical and tax nightmare.
Weddington officials will reach out to the Providence Volunteer Fire Department to negotiate a price for the service. The move could be a boon for the Providence VFD, which is scheduled to run out of money in March 2013. Providence is strategically positioned within the town to satisfy state insurance guidelines and the revenue is desperately needed to keep the station afloat.
But Weddington Mayor Walker Davidson said there is one important thing residents need to know about the upcoming negotiations.
“Some people seem to think we’re going to do this at any cost,” he said this week. “That’s just not true. If they come back with a cost that is too high, we won’t do it. We have a price range that is tolerable for us. If the estimates aren’t tolerable then we just won’t do it. … Keep in mind, if we wanted to do this at any cost, we could have already done it.”
Weddington is currently in Stallings, Providence and Wesley Chapel fire districts, creating a hodge-podge coverage map. Providence Fire Chief Josh Dye said there are some instances where a home may only be a quarter-of-a-mile away from their fire station but are serviced by a department more than four miles away.
A municipal fire district, Walker said, would allow the town to draw its own lines and create one price for service for the entire town. Currently, some town residents in the Wesley Chapel district pay 2.2 cents per $100 of assessed property value while Stallings and Providence pay a $100 flat fee for fire services.
Critics of the fire district have said they don’t want the town on the hook to keep Providence VFD from going under. They’d much rather see the Wesley Chapel Fire Department and Providence merge. They fear a tax increase would be needed to support Providence under a municipal fire district.
The current tax rate in Weddington is 3 cents per $100 of assessed value and Davidson said the board hopes to keep taxes around 5.2 cents, the rate many residents already pay for combined property tax and fire service.
But Commissioner Werner Thomisser, the sole opposition to the vote, said he thinks the tax rate will get out of hand under a municipal fire district and the size of the district would be unmanageable for Providence firefighters.
While commissioners debated moving forward with contract negotiations at Monday’s meeting, Thomisser said he feared Weddington residents would be forced to pay a 7 cent tax rate, a figure everyone on the board denounced, and the town would be responsible for making upgrades to Providence’s fire station.
He pushed the board to reconsider merging departments.
Mayor Pro Tem Dan Barry said the town would actually be freed from being left on the hook for upgrades of the station and equipment. Currently, Providence has no revenue so getting a loan to purchase a new fire truck or upgrade equipment requires firefighters come to the town to secure the cash. Under a municipal fire district, they would be revenue generating and could get their own loan, he said.
Chief Dye backed up those claims at Thursday night’s Fire Commission meeting.