Weddington fire district in “execution phase”

by Eren Tataragasi

WEDDINGTON — Beginning July 1, Weddington will have its own municipal fire service and Providence Volunteer Fire Department will be its primary service provider.

Mayor Walker Davidson explained, with an agreement in place with the Stallings Volunteer Fire Department to cover the eastern part of town, Providence is set up to cover the rest of Weddington.

The town had hoped to sign a contract with Wesley Chapel Volunteer Fire Department for service of the southern part of town, but the department declined.

This has several implications for residents as well as Wesley Chapel VFD.

The town was poised to give $114,000 to Wesley Chapel VFD to cover the southern area of Weddington rather than the southern and central, up to the Providence line, and an additional $48,000 to cover the eastern area. But since the department declined the contract, the $114,000 will go to Providence to expand its personnel to provide the extra coverage and the $48,000 went to Stallings VFD.

This means when a call comes in from the southern area, Providence will rush to get to the scene and may or may not be the first to arrive. But since Wesley Chapel VFD did not sign the contract, if they get there first they won’t get paid from Weddington for their services. But under an automatic aid agreement signed by all fire departments in Union County in 2008, the Wesley Chapel VFD is still required to respond to calls from that area.

This impacts the Wesley Chapel department because it leaves it with a $220,000 budget short fall, which is what they were previously getting from Weddington residents through the fire tax.

Providence’s operating budget from the town will now be around $660,000. Wesley Chapel’s operating budget was around $1.4 million, but now they’ll have about 16 percent less next year.

Davidson said he and the council felt moved to do something quickly regarding their fire service because if they didn’t, by March 2013, Providence would have to close its doors.

In a fire commission meeting Aug. 23, 2011, the president of the Providence VFD board of directors told commissioners, “If we’re not granted a fire tax, we will use our reserves and be done by March 2013.”

“No one wanted that to happen,” Davidson said. “And the clock was ticking.”

Providence was previously funded by a $100 fire fee from resident as was the Stallings VFD.

With the creation of a municipal fire service model, both departments will receive money from the town, which is collected as part of the annual property tax payments.

Weddington’s property tax rate is currently 3 cents per $100 of assessed property value.

But beginning July 1, if the council approves it, the tax rate would go to 5.2 cents and eliminate that $100 fee for residents in the Providence and Stallings districts. The tax rate residents were paying for coverage in the southern area was 2.2 cents, which the county will no longer collect.

“So some people will see an increase or decrease depending on their homes’ value, but most won’t see any difference,” Davidson explained.

Davidson said, because Wesley Chapel didn’t sign an agreement with the town, they will now have a budget shortfall and taxes for those in the remainder of the Wesley Chapel VFD district will likely have to be raised to fill the gap. Their current tax rate is 2.2 cents.

Wesley Chapel VFD Chief Steven McLendon said that, yes, not signing a contract could result in a tax increase for the rest of the department’s coverage area, but he’s still hoping to work out a contract with the town.

The issue, he explained, is that Weddington’s municipal fire service plan is not based off having the closest facility respond to calls, which is what Davidson said was the town’s goal in a letter to residents dated March 20.

McLendon said the map the Providence department drew up is vastly different from the GIS map drawn up by the county, which illustrates which station is closest to properties in Weddington. In some cases, Wesley Chapel is at least two miles closer to a property than Providence or Stallings VFD.

One example he gave was that Wesley Chapel’s Station 31 is in Weddington, but under this service plan, if an emergency call came from that address, Wesley Chapel wouldn’t be the one called to respond, Providence would.

“We want to make sure we’re serving the citizens to the best of our ability through this fire district,” McLendon said. “It’s hard to sign a contract on behalf of the citizens that doesn’t match the town’s goal to begin with. We want to see the citizens receiving the best benefits they can. We can’t control that the town made a motion to do this, but we want to make sure a contract provides the best service.”

He said he knows the budget cut will hurt the department, but public safety is the department’s priority.

“If they’ll redefine the areas to where the closest department is responding, we’d be close to reaching an agreement based on public safety, not on finances,” McLendon said.

McLendon said it’s important to reach a deal with Weddington, because while the county’s automatic aid agreement does mean they’ll respond to any fire, the same does not apply for medical calls.

“It’s a complex system and it’s more than just signing a contract,” McLendon said. “We have to look at what’s in the best interest of the citizens and public safety.”

Davidson said there’s still work to be done and the town and Providence will be working with the county to rework the fire district map and testing it with the 911 center before going live with the new fire service model in July.

Davidson added the town will hold a public hearing on the budget and proposed tax rate in June.

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