County looks at Weddington fire service

Staff to examine how a fire district would affect other departments, towns

by Brian Carlton

If Weddington decides to create a municipal fire district, county commissioners want to know how that will impact other fire departments in the area.

During their Monday, March 5 meeting, county commissioners unanimously voted to direct staff to work with the Fire Commission and collect information. That includes the definition of a municipal fire district, details as to how a fire district differs from other fire service models currently used and identifying the tax implications associated with the district.

“I believe its our responsibility to get the information out there,” county commissioner Jonathan Thomas said. Whil the he didn’t support the idea of a fire district, Thomas said the residents should have the final say.

“If that is Weddington’s perogative and they have the legal authority to (create a district), there’s not much this commission can do to stop it,” Thomas said. “At the end of the day, if the citizens want a particular outcome, that’s fine.”

After more than a year of discussion over the future of fire service in the town, Weddington council members voted 3 to 2, with Daniel Barry and Werner Thomisser in opposition, during their Feb. 13 meeting, to start preliminary contract discusssions with the three fire departments that serve the town, while collecting more information from the state about a municipal fire district.

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. Speaking to county commissioners March 5, several Weddington residents said they were concerned a district would lead to higher taxes.

“What we’re concerned about is the tax increase,” former Weddington council member Jerry McKee said. “Weddington (would) contract with three separate fire departments and set a tax for each one. This would be a nightmare.”

Instead, McKee said he hoped the county would push for the Providence and Wesley Chapel fire departments to merge. That way, he felt Weddington could get out of funding a fire department and cut property taxes by at least one cent.

“What I fear the most is that the fire tax is going to get out of hand,” current Weddington council member Werner Thomisser said.

The two were joined during public comments by former Weddington mayoral candidate Stephanie Belcher and former state lawmaker Curtis Blackwood, who also asked the county to step in and help a merger happen, as opposed to what they saw as an increase in tax for the same service they currently receive.

Flip-flop?

The question is what changed between October and now, as three of the four previously endorsed creating a fire district, both in the Union County Weekly’s candidate Q & A session and in public meetings.

Council member McKee originally made the motion to pursue a fire district last fall. During election season, Union County Weekly asked all the Weddington council candidates if they supported a municipal fire district. At the time, McKee responded that “I am in favor of looking into a municipal fire district. It is very important that all residents of Weddington be involved and informed about this issue.”

Thomisser also was previously in favor of a fire district, stating in the town’s Oct. 10 meeting that “it’s time for us to step up, with a municipal fire district.”

After the election, McKee and Thomisser spoke out in opposition to the proposed district. In November, Thomisser read a breakdown of the cost of maintaining 24-hour coverage at Providence, currently at $267,180 per year. With the department needing improvements to its station, Thomisser estimated Weddington residents could see a fire-district tax of 7 or 8 cents per $100 of assessed value.

Both in the town council meetings and at the county commission on Monday, the two raised their concerns about an increase in the fire tax, presented as information they didn’t have prior to the election.

However in meetings on July 10, 11 and Aug. 17, Providence Volunteer Fire Department President Jack Parks presented residents and town council members with the three options and what each would mean in terms of a fire tax. If Providence operated on its own, without any change in the county fire lines, Weddington residents would see a 7 to 8 cent fire tax to balance the books. By comparison, if the lines were moved, Providence officials believe they could operate with a 5 cent tax rate and would no longer require the town to help cover their shortfalls. Additionally, with that 5 cent rate, Parks said Providence could pay for its own repairs and not ask for assistance on that front either. The final option, if a merger with Wesley Chapel occurred, would mean an increase to between 3 to 5 cents, as the merged department would have to pay off the new Wesley Chapel fire station, as well as pay for repairs and renovations to bring the Providence station on Hemby Road up to code.

According to Weddington town council minutes, both McKee and Thomisser were at the July 11 and Aug. 17 meetings when these presentations were made.

During her campaign for mayor, Belcher said she was in favor of a fire district, stating in the Union County Weekly mayoral Q & A session that “A move to a municipal fire district will allow the town to directly contract with the fire departments for the level of service it needs. This change will allow the town to put a common sense safety plan in place that directs the closest volunteer fire department to be the primary station for each household. Simply put the closest station to each home should be primary for an emergency call and for the associated fire tax revenue.”

Belcher told Union County Weekly she changed her mind once she looked at more detailed financial information.

“The numbers show that the expected costs of a municipal fire district are much greater than originally understood,” Belcher said. “ Even with an equalized fire tax and more rooftops for Providence; there would still not be enough money to cover operating costs and future improvements without continued Weddington subsidies. Further, the impacts to the surrounding towns and un-incorporated areas have been largely ignored. The Weddington tax payer costs to fund (Providence) through a Municipal Fire District have been estimated as upwards of .05 to .07 cents per $100 property valuation.”

Currently, both the town of Weddington and the county are running analysis of the potential impact of a fire district. No timetable has been set for either study’s completion.

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