Candidate wants curbs on county fire-service moves

Apr. 26, 2014 @ 04:23 PM

A candidate for a N.C. House seat representing northern Orange and Durham counties wants to restrict the ability of county governments to force changes to the staffing of volunteer fire departments.

Republican contender Lewis Hannah took to his campaign Web site in February to say “a vote by the fire district[’s]” residents should be required before a county acts on plans to replace volunteers with paid firefighters.

“Not to denigrate the professionalism of paid firefighters and their dedication to the effort, but the volunteer brings the ‘neighbor helping neighbor’ spirit that harks back to the volunteer militias that protected their neighbors and assisted in this country’s fight for independence,” he said.

Hannah vowed if elected to the House District 50 seat to introduce to implement the referendum proposal.

The posting came as Durham County commissioners were mulling the advice of a consultant’s study of Durham’s rural fire service that among other things advised requiring the Bahama Volunteer Fire Department to beef up staffing at its main station.

The move would have forced the department to have three firefighters posted there 24/7, instead of the two that are now customary.

Bahama officials objected on cost grounds, prompting the commissioners and Deputy County Manager Lee Worsley eventually dropped the idea.

Like every other “volunteer” fire department in the county, Bahama already makes heavy use of paid staffers. But when the county’s consultants did their work, it was the only one still majority volunteer, paid firefighters accounting for 26 of its 67-person roster.

Hannah said it’s clear that volunteer departments have “almost become not necessary” in the southern part of Durham because the city has annexed so much formerly rural territory.

But in northern Durham, volunteer departments like Bahama are still important institutions, “so making a countywide change would not necessarily be helpful to them maintaining their community identity,” he said.

He added that an additional problem is that the Durham commissioners aren’t necessarily representative of rural views, given that the vast majority of the countywide voter base is in the city.

In consequence, rural residents “just don’t have a proportional voice,” Hannah said.

The issue isn’t one the other GOP candidate in the House 50 race, Rod Chaney, is pushing.

Chaney said he “doesn’t have any thoughts on it” currently even though there are discussions even in Orange County about the proper division of responsibilities between town and county governments.

Hannah, a banker, and Chaney, a minister, are facing off in a Republican primary that will conclude on May 6. The winner goes on to face state Rep. Graig Meyer, a Democrat and the appointed incumbent.

Counties now have the authority under state law to structure the rural fire service more or less as they see fit, by negotiating and signing service contracts with whatever organization they decide should provide coverage.

The N.C. General Assembly wound up under Republican control after the 2010 election and in the years since has shown itself willing to intervene in local-government business.

But the intervention impulse, historically speaking, is common to both parties.

Former House 50 state Rep. Bill Faison, D-Orange, triggered a move to district-based election of the Orange County Commissioners last decade after floating legislation that would have forced the conversion.