Fire costs complicate budget season again

kjahner@newsobserver.comDecember 27, 2013 

— With the fiscal year roughly half over, Garner elected officials and staff met in mid-December to discuss the budget process. A bulk of the conversation fixated on the fire budget, which will likely prove the most complicated element of the budget process for a variety of reasons.

Much of the Dec. 17 meeting consisted of catching new budget and special projects manager Jaime Ludovic up on the typical budget process, but the fire budget took the most time because of how atypical it is.

The town and county pay the independent agency Garner Volunteer Fire and Rescue on a 55-45 percent split, but that division of expense proves little more than nominal with the county setting a contribution growing more slowly that what the department and council say is needed.

Town Manager Hardin Watkins expects the county to propose a budget in which its contribution in between one and two percent higher than 2012-13. If the fire department needs more than that to maintain service, the town will have to pick up the difference or deal with reduced service.

“It’s going to be similar to the last few years,” Watkins said. “It leaves all of us wondering how we are going to fund the same level of service.”

Complicating matters, last year the town had already advanced substantially through their budget process by the time the county announced in May what its share would be. The town will operate assuming it will not get much more notice this year. Given the complexity of the process, the town wants to get a head start on the fire budget, and councilman Ken Marshburn said the department has indicated a willingness to do the same.

Municipal Garner makes up about a quarter of the 60 square miles covered by Garner Fire. But the town makes up about 60 percent of calls and a vast majority of building planning and hydrant maintenance.

The town hopes it will help that this time around the county will have another voice in the process: Michael Wright, the county’s new fire services director. That position had been vacant for some time. As a result the budget-setters with the county did not have a direct voice with fire experience in the budget process.

What comes next?

In 2013-14, the town budgeted $2.1 million initially. The county figured the total budget at $3.54 million, and Poole complaned of major shortfalls in essential areas. The town pitched in more to fill the gap

At the end of 2012-13 fiscal year, Chief Matt Poole had to ask for an additional $130,000 to get through the year; the town found an additional $75,000.

Councilmen typically praise the job Poole has done, and acknowledge that the county is not necessarily working to sustain their role in its current form.

“Bottom line the county wants to get out of the fire service,” Councilwoman Kathy Behringer said.

In addition, Garner Fire is funded differently than other departments in the county.

“They’re tired of 19 independent departments,” Councilman Gra Singleton said, suggesting either mergers or municipal governments could cull the herd. As for the town taking ownership of Garner Fire: “I expect that may happen one day but I don’t know when. I don’t know what the new (county) manager’s philosophy may be,” Singleton said.

Wake County is currently searching for a new manager following the retirement of David Cooke, who left the post in November.

The town pays substantially less for fire protection than most other municipalities, on a per-population percentage of budget and a per-call basis. The department receives high ratings for service despite the shoestring budget. But whether through municipalization of the department or through the county paying less and less of the share required to run Garner Fire, the town will pay more in the future.

“It’s going to eventually cost a little bit more,” Singleton said. “We’re not trying to swallow the elephant in one bite. We’re trying to do a little bit at a time, $70,000 this year, $70,000 next year.”


Jahner: 919-829-4822; Twitter: @garnercleveland

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