Early gets three tentative votes toward building new station.
By David Leone
WAKE FOREST — By a show of hands Tuesday, three out of five town commissioners informally agreed to raise taxes by 1 cent per $100 in assessed property value.
That would be $20 extra for a $200,000 house.
The station is already needed, Wake Forest Fire Chief Ron Early said, adding, “In this business, time equals life. … It equals to life lost or property lost.”
The final decision will come next Tuesday when they officially vote on the town’s draft 2014-15 budget.
The penny will help the nonprofit Wake Forest Fire Department to begin staffing its future Jenkins Road fire station, expected to be built within a year’s time.
Another 1-cent hike will be needed next year to finish paying for staffing needs, estimated at about $700,000 total, unless more funding is obtained from Wake County.
That the county may contribute more in the near future is what caused commissioners Greg Harrington and Zachary Donahue to offer dissent.
In the past, fire officials and town leaders have protested that the county doesn’t equitably contribute to the Wake Forest department and that town taxpayers bear the burden of providing funding for a department that answers many calls in rural areas.
“Can you convince me why Wake Forest taxpayers should suffer a tax increase to provide fire services to the county?” Harrington asked.
Noting that the county is “riding the coattails” of the town’s paying for proper fire service, Wake Forest Fire Chief Ron Early said that the response times in the northwest part of town (and rural Wakette fire district that the department serves) are lagging, and that the in-town properties they serve need the new station now.
“If we were to take out all the county property outside of the town limits and ETJ … the town of Wake Forest would still need four stations to meet that response time,” he said. “We’re still pushing for the county to pay their fair share.”
Though there is a larger area outside of town that the new station would serve, half or more than half of the calls the department answers — and will answer — are inside town limits, he added.
Donahue pressed for information on when the county’s fire services committee would complete its study, expected by some to allot Wake Forest Fire more county tax funding in the future.
A draft of the study was originally expected to be completed by April, but the consultant is still collecting data on all the departments that receive county funding, Early said.
“I think it’s premature to make a decision like this without having the study complete,” Donahue said.
“My concern with waiting … is it puts us much further behind,” Early said.
Had the station already existed, one man, former auxiliary police chief and vice-president of the Wake Forest Fire Department’s board of directors, Bob Bridges, wouldn’t have had to wait eight minutes for first responders to come to his house when he had a health crisis last month, Commissioner Anne Hines said.
Bridges, who lived just outside town limits at Jenkins and Capital Boulevard, died later at the hospital.
“If that station had been there, there’s a member of the community that was much loved and much involved, Bob Bridges would probably still have been alive,” she declared.
Harrington said that it’s impossible to know what would have occurred.
Commissioners Margaret Stinnett and Jim Thompson had both expressed reservations earlier on about the tax hike.
After the meeting, Thompson explained his reasoning.
“I think it’s pretty conservative to only have to raise a one-penny (fire) tax in nine years. And we’ve increased spending 50 percent,” he said. “To me, that’s pretty responsible.”
“I don’t think it’s fair to put citizens in danger just because we can’t figure out a dispute between the county and city,” he added.
Town once appointed directors
In response to a question Stinnett raised last week about why the town doesn’t appoint voting members to the fire department’s board of directors as the county does, Town Manager Mark Williams pointed out that in the late 1980s and early 1990s the town appointed two members.
At the time, the town both contributed financially to the department and even owned some of the equipment.
In the early 1990s the Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) rules changed. Up until that point, cities would be notified when they broke a safety rule, but couldn’t be fined, he said. The League of Municipalities discussed the issue and came up with a change at the time.
“The recommendation back then … was you need to remove yourself from as much control over any of those volunteer agencies as you can,” Williams said, “ … to keep you from being liable if they did something wrong.”
Commissioners had little discussion about the remainder of the $56 million budget. The only other change was to agree to the Wake Forest Historical Museum’s request for $2,000 to sponsor a Smithsonian exhibit next year.