Garner Fire hopes for more, but braces for county thrift in town budget talks

kjahner@newsobserver.comMarch 21, 2014 

GARNER FIRE

— The town will lobby Wake County to pay a share of what the Garner Volunteer Fire and Rescue chief and board consider necesary budget additions, but past experience suggests Garner may have two real choices: pony up itself or leave Garner Fire wanting.

Fire Chief Matt Poole, fire board members and the town’s law and finance committee met Tuesday morning to discuss the budget. Poole presented a budget with no increases to what the county budgeted last year ($3.68 million) as the county had requested, and then requested roughly $250,000 extra to fund three new firefighter positions along with some other needs.

During last year’s budget season, the town pitched in extra money including funds for a part-time administration employee and two mobile data terminals when the county wouldn’t help. Neither found the money for the three firefighters, which Poole also lobbied for in 2013.

The county pays 46 percent of the cost of running the fire station. But special projects and budget maanager Jaime Ludavic noted that it’s already shifted more toward a 56-44 split and would move to 58-42 if the town picked up the requested budget expansion.

County Commissioner Phil Matthews, the chair of the board and a Garner resient, said he hasn’t seen the proposal, and didn’t want to comment.

“We’ll take a good look and try and learn the right thing,” Matthews said.

About 60 percent of call volume and most of the planning can be attributed to the town, though unincorporated land accounts for the vast majority of the territory, meaning needs for additional stations and extra fuel. Poole said it’s difficult to calculate what proportion of expenses comes from town or the. county, since functions, personnel and equipment overlap roles.

Frustrations

The county’s hesitation has drawn the ire of town staff and council, which believes Wake County is trying to get out of the fire business and instead contract with municipal fire services.

“They basically don’t provide any new money to fire year in year out,” Town Manager Hardin Watkins said. “It’s a non-sustainable model.”

Aside from that – Poole called budget projections “conservative to say the least” – council struggles with late information as it deals with its own budget.

“Expansion requests, those could be last-minute, around May,” finance director Emily Lucas told council members Ken Marshburn and Kathy Behringer. “It may or may not be before you meet as a council on the whole budget.”

Watkins added: “It’s created frustration for us pretty much every year.”

Poole said based on needs and funding the county needed to re-examine the fire tax, one that hadn’t changed since dropping from $0.10 to $0.08 per $100 in property value in 2008.

“Obviously a tax increase is a political topic,” Poole said. “But it needs to be looked at. I’m not saying it’s the answer, but at least look at it. Is 8 cents reflective the level of service wanted by citizens. My opinion is that it’s not.”

Matthews didn’t rule out the possibility, but didn’t commit to anything beyond looking.

“We’ll take a good look at anything. We don’t want a decline in level of service. People want blue lights and red lights as quickly as we can get them,” Matthrews said.

Poole pointed to Clayton, which has a 10 cent fire tax and a lower level of service. He has also analyzed the town and found that on a per-call basis, Garner Fire provides service among the cheapest in Wake County. Watkins also noted that the county is unique in that it has the same fire tax accross the board, despite wildly varying fire needs.

‘As good as you can provide’

Fire board member and former council candidate Jeanette Hagwood bristled at the idea of allowing shrinking funding to dimminish service for the town and outlying areas.

“I don’t like that question, ‘What level of care do you want me to provide?’” Hagwood said. “I don’t want to hear it from my firefighters, my police officers, my doctor. The answer is as good as you can provide.”

Poole said discussions with the county staff and the fire board have become increasingly productive and cooperative, even as he feels the department remains underfunded. In particular he cited Michael Wright, the director of fire services the county hired in October as understanding and helpful.

“He and I are on the same page,” Poole said.

A consultant for Wake County is independently looking at its cost-share formulas for fire agencies shared with municipaliites, which Poole thinks will net winners and losers. The county has also hired a new manager and three commissioners face re-election opponents this fall.

In addition to three firefighters, Poole has requested money to move a new part-time administrative assistant to full-time.

About $163,500 of the requested $249,166 increase would cover those personnel additions, some of it one-time hiring cost. Another $41,260 would cover projected insurance increeases. Poole said Garner Fire has one of the lowest health insurance rates in the county.

Poole expects the three new firefighter positions to generate savings, as currently most sick days require paying another firefighter overtime to staff all three stations with a minimum three firefighters. But he didn’t want to speculate how much would be saved.

Poole said the agency was staffed without overtime-workers just five days last month, and rarely did a month go by where there were 10 days where there were enough to staff each station with three firefighters in a shift.

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

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