By David Leone
He cleared that hurdle with town board approval of the plan. But now the station appears in jeopardy from commissioners themselves.
“This station is going to serve an awful lot of the county,” Town Manager Mark Williams noted during a specially called meeting March 27 to discuss the fire department funding.
At the meeting, criticism of the station’s edge-of-town location was raised, because many of the calls the fire department answers are in rural Wake Forest.
In essence, officials want the county to pay the nonprofit fire department more to improve the response times to rural areas west of Capital Boulevard.
“I don’t know if I can (fund it),” Commissioner Margaret Stinnett said. “Our area west of Capital Boulevard — is limited.”
The nonprofit fire department gets most of its $4.4 million in funding from the town, paid for through the town’s fire tax (10 cents per $100 valuation).
A town fire impact fee on new development helps pay for capital improvements such as engines and new stations.
There’s money available for that, but adding three shifts of four firefighters to the new station will cost $750,000 annually.
Recurring salary costs can’t be paid for with one-time disbursements.
Wake Forest Fire answers many calls outside of town according to longstanding agreements. The county contributes fire tax revenues to fire departments to operate in rural areas, but limits that contribution.
Early wants 2 pennies more added to the Wake Forest fire tax for that $750,000. The money is essential to pay for salaries, insurance and operating expenses. The tax would go up for Wake Forest residents one penny this year, and another penny next year, as staff is added to the station.
“If we don’t get the 2 cents we won’t open the station,” he said.
That would put a continuing strain on the existing fire staff and equipment at Station 1, he said.
“Engine 1 is taking twice as many calls as the other engines,” he said.
Furthermore, calls to that northwest quadrant of town (and outside town) take longer to reach, and Early is adamant that response times need to be reduced to save lives.
Money spent wisely?
Commissioner Zachary Donahue questioned the funding request. He asked why, as tax revenues go up when new residents move into town, there isn’t automatically more money to draw from.
“I just want to make sure the taxpayers’ money is being spent wisely,” he said.
Mayor Vivian Jones countered that as the town grows, the fire department has to serve more areas and their trucks respond to more wrecks, adding to their expenses. The increase in tax revenues is more closely tied to commercial than residential tax base increases, she added.
Early was insistent that the Jenkins Road location is ideal even for the calls that Station 4 would answer in-town, primarily to neighborhoods and businesses along either side of Capital Boulevard.
Can additional funding be obtained from the county for Station 4? officials were asked.
Town and fire department leaders have long complained that the county doesn’t fairly reimburse town departments for the cost of providing service to rural areas — many section which are no longer agrarian, but now populated with wealthier, large-lot residential developments.
“There is no rhyme or reason for how the county decides how much money you get,” Williams said.
The county levies a tax of 8 cents per $100 in property valuation. That raises just under $21 million annually. Of that,
Wake Forest receives $700,000 annually from the county. Town residents do not pay the county fire tax.
Wake County Fire Services is conducting a study to see if they can make the process more equitable, Early said.
But even if changes are made in the town’s favor, they wouldn’t go into effect until the 2015-16 budget year.
Changes may be coming
Michael Wright, Wake County Fire Services’ new director, confirmed that the consultant, Emergency Services Consulting, is conducting the study.
The study is to look at our existing funding model and reallocate (resources),” he said.
Due to high staff turnover and missing documentation, it’s unclear how the 19 fire department allocations were arrived upon, he added.
Some of the factors the county has used in the past to determine funding include service demands, property values, population density and total calls for service, Wright said.
The consultant, which has conducted other such studies across the country, will calculate which criteria are best, he added.
“Today I can’t stand up and defend the current model,” he said.
The first draft of the report is due in April. Fire chiefs and town managers will be asked for input and the final draft will go to the county fire service board of directors by June, Wright estimates. Their recommendation will then go on to the Wake County Commissioners.
None of the changes will take effect before the next budget year. And even then, major changes may be implemented in tiers over time to lessen the impact on fire departments, he added.
“We don’t want this to hurt anybody but we want to make sure it’s equitable,” he said.