Walnut Cove debates fire funding

By Nicholas Elmes - nelmes@civitasmedia.com

As the Walnut Cove Board of Commissioners begins the budget process for the next fiscal year, increased funding for the Walnut Cove fire department is again being questioned.

During a day long budget meeting last week Walnut Cove Fire and Rescue Chief David Willard asked the town to match the amount the department would receive if town residents paid the county fire tax, a request which commissioners seem likely to deny.

“The town currently pays the equivalent of a six cent tax,” said Willard. “I am asking for the town to do what we feel is equitable, to match what the county does.”

The county fire tax is currently seven cents, with county commissioners agreeing last year to raise that rate by half a cent each year for the next two fiscal years. To match what the fire department gets from the fire district tax currently, Walnut Cove would have to increase its annual payment to the department by $10,000 going from $60,000 to $70,000.

Willard said the fire department is continuing to face issues with staffing, especially during the day, and hopes to be able to hire a either a full time position, which would require additional money for benefits, or more part time paid fire fighters to ensure proper coverage of the area.

“We are getting to the point where, equipment-wise, we are good,” he said. “Costs are shifting more toward personnel costs. I wish I had 40 volunteers everyday that I could depend on and were qualified and could do what needed to be don, but it is not there right now.”

Willard noted that the department ran about 1,200 calls last year, saying that they were split pretty evenly between calls within the town and calls in the fire district.

Town Manager Bobby Miller recommended the town increase the amount it pays the fire department by $1,500 raising the annual payment to $6,150.

“We went up by about $8,000 two years ago in one pop,” said Mayor Lynn Lewis. “We thought that was pretty good.”

Commissioner Sharon Conaway said she had a number of issues with how the fire department approached its budget and could not support a large increase in the town’s contribution.

“We can’t chase the county,” she said. “It does not cost as much to run a call in the town as it does in the service district. They had created a five year spending plan and they would not give it to us.”

She said she also was concerned with the cost of a new fire truck the department recently bought.

“They could have gotten less of a truck and put more money into paying personnel,” she said. “That was expressed to them when they made that decision. We have a lot of things we have to address with the town. We can’t just give them $20,000.

“They are going to have to start living within their means,” she added. “That truck has a lot of bells and whistles on it that they could have done without. I want to see them more forward thinking for the long term.”

Conaway noted that if the department wanted to hire a full time firefighter to handle calls during the day that it may be hard to recruit a candidate unless the department became a true municipal fire department.

“They can’t be in the state fireman retirement program without being a municipal fire department,” she explained. “They mention wanting a full-time fireman, but if they want to maintain their independence, they are going to have a hard time doing that.”

She said she was also concerned with the make up of the fire department’s board, noting that only one of the nine members was a town resident.

“I would like to see the town have more representation on the board,” she said. “I think there should be at least two town residents on the board.”

Conaway also accused the board of not holding open meetings, saying that she would like a requirement for them to follow open meeting laws be included in any contract the town signs with the department.

Miller said the department was true asset for the town.

“In a perfect world you would like to go in there and tell them now is the time to get their fiscal house in order, but when you drive downtown we have a first class fire department,” he said. “It was a head and shoulders jump when you got the paid staff during the day.”

The board tentatively agreed to seek a contract with the department for the next fiscal year for $61,500 with the requirements that the department’s board follow open meeting laws and try to increase town resident representation on the board.

Nicholas Elmes may be reached at 336-591-8191 or on Twitter @NicholasElmes.

By Nicholas Elmes