Union County Pulse: Protecting Providence

This July 4th week is a time of celebration and reunion with family, friends, community and country. Most of us are focused on barbecues, picnics, recreational activities and camaraderie. You aren’t focused on vital emergency services. But, if suddenly a medical or fire emergency occurred, priorities would shift – vital services would become the highest priority. You would not be wondering IF help would arrive, but how fast it would be there. You would be counting seconds, not minutes. If you had to wait 5, 10 or 20 minutes, watching a fire out of control, or someone close to you in pain, you would be livid.

The Providence VFD was established in 1954 by a group of local farmers and businessmen. Similar independent fire departments were springing up all over the county. Each has a unique, rich and proud history. County government recognized these individual service entities and structured itself to accommodate this model of independence. The county depends on these independent service entities to manage local needs and changes in demographics. The county is not structured to accommodate our local issues as it struggles to address its own budget issues with a 14M deficit.

Today the Town of Weddington looks a lot different than it did over 50 years ago. Our population is larger and more diverse, neighborhoods replace farmland and employment is largely technology driven. Emergency equipment is complex and expensive. A fire engine can range in price from 500K to 1M. Medical and personnel safety equipment is changing and improving. The cost of vital services is growing.

A “them or us” relationship between the fire department and the town no longer works. Although the Providence VFD is still a separate entity it is dependent on a shared relationship with the town. Vital emergency service is a primary responsibility of the town, not an option. Citizens have the luxury of not thinking about vital services because they assume and expect the town will provide for them.

The issues facing Providence VFD result from annexations by the City of Charlotte, shrinking fire district lines, increased equipment costs, and the ongoing challenge attracting new volunteers who can respond timely to calls from their homes. They are not the result of irresponsible spending practices. It is very easy to forget that these men and women must protect themselves as they dedicate themselves to protect us.

Providence VFD currently receives income through a fire fee with a cap of $100 per household. At its current size this is not sufficient to cover costs. In past years Weddington has provided financial support. However, this year, the town council recognized and agreed to the needs yet modified their support jeopardizing our service. I believe this demonstrates a perspective disconnect which must change. We cannot wait until next year to address the needs facing Providence today! And denial is not a solution.

The first step for recovery is a switch to a fire tax system rather than a fire fee. This will provide more flexibility for raising income to cover expenses. In addition to a fire tax, the fire district lines must be expanded to protect homes and families within a 5 mile radius. Added homes within the district means added income to Providence.

In the short term, the budget should be amended to provide the 450K funding needed and verbally committed, to make necessary building upgrades in order to continue 24/7 staffed coverage. This show of good faith and partnership with Providence will establish a commitment for the future.

The good news is that Mayor Nancy Anderson, and the town council had the foresight to prepare for unforeseen expenses. There is a 2.4M surplus available which could be allocated to move forward in a responsible way. I have heard concern about using town funds to pay for something which will not benefit all the citizens. This is not true. ALL of Weddington will benefit from 24/7 staffed coverage. Immediate help would be available for every homeowner having a fire emergency.

The decisions made over the next few weeks will lay the foundation for the future of Weddington’s emergency services. Do you want to live in a town satisfied with adequate expectations, or with leadership aspiring to extraordinary goals? This is your town, get the facts and speak up during two upcoming meetings: July 10th 7PM at the Providence fire station on Hemby Road, and July 11th 7PM at Weddington Town Hall. Log in to this website for more details: www.SaveProvidenceVFD.org.

Judy Johnston

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