Durham County slows work on some fire-service changes

Feb. 12, 2014 @ 03:00 PM

County Commissioners this week endorsed the findings of a study of Durham’s rural fire service, but not before they and county staffers watered down some of its key recommendations.

The changes included a decision to forgo, for now, opening talks that could’ve led to the city Fire Department taking over coverage in the south Durham districts now protected by the Parkwood and Bethesda volunteer fire departments.

Instead, the county will launch a feasibility study to look at the details of how a switch might affect “items like cost, response times” and fire-insurance ratings, Interim County Manager Lee Worsley said.

The county will take the same approach to two areas of west Durham covered by the Orange County-based Eno and New Hope volunteer departments, he said, adding that if the county eventually does initiate takeover talks, it will include the chiefs of the affected departments.

The commissioners and Worsley similarly backed off on the idea of forcing north Durham’s Bahama volunteer department to beef up staffing at its main station, and of barring all the rural departments from putting any of their paid staffers on their governing boards.

The decisions Monday followed a morning meeting between Worsley, the county’s point man on the issue, and the chiefs of the four Durham-based volunteer fire departments that remain under nonprofit ownership.

It also followed series of emails critical of the county initiative that originated mainly from supporters and members of the Bahama department.

Commissioners agreed a slower approach would be better.

“It’s important, with any major change, that we give time for the community either to get on board or tell us why it’s not a good idea,” Commissioner Ellen Reckhow said.

That comment marked a change in tune from Reckhow, and from other officials who have voiced worry about the health of the rural fire service.

Officials launched the study in fiscal 2012-13 at the behest of former County Manager Mike Ruffin, who questioned whether the rural departments are giving people living in the various sections of the county equal value for their money.

Additional financial concerns emerged last year when the county was asked, on short notice, to take ownership of east Durham’s Bethesda Volunteer Fire Department.

Its former nonprofit owners sought the county’s help after the loss of a service contract with the neighboring city of Raleigh torpedoed the department’s balance sheet.

The Parkwood department, meanwhile, is going into trusteeship at the county’s request after an audit uncovered cash-flow problems.

Monday’s vote did endorse most of the study’s recommendations, including those that urge and facilitate tighter county oversight of the rural department’s capital planning and finances. Officials will implement them through changes to their contracts with the departments. The county is legally responsible for arranging fire coverage in rural areas.

The opposition from Bahama was unsurprising, as that department’s tax district covers an area that’s politically more conservative than the local norm and has a strong independent streak. One community in its district, Rougemont, came a handful of votes short in 2011 of deciding to incorporate.

Emails indicate that critics are worried any change to the present system will trigger tax increases. The county now levies a property tax surcharge of 6 cents per $100 of assessed value to underwrite the Bahama department’s operations.

County officials before Monday were prepared to ask Bahama to guarantee the presence of three firefighters at its main station 24/7, instead of its current two. That accounted for the cost and tax worries.

Bahama supporters claimed it can improve the district’s insurance ratings without the proposed changes, negating the county’s arguments that lower insurance premiums for homeowners would offset any tax impact.

“Our tax rate has always been the lowest of any other department in the county due to our fiscal responsibility,” Charles Sanford, Bahama’s deputy chief, said in an email that went on to argue that the commissioners should deem suspect the views of county staffers who have no stake in the community.

However, Bahama’s fiscal 2011-12 tax filing, the most recent available, indicates the department lost $135,306 that year and $193,253 the year before.

It banked $885,576 in revenues in 2011-12, versus about $1 million in expenses counting depreciation. Sanford signed the return as treasurer of Bahama’s governing board.

Worsley in an email last week said he’d supported the staffing increase because Bahama “protects a very large territory” including the Treyburn Corporate Park, “which houses extremely valuable real estate and heavy industrial use.”

He also cautioned against giving weight to arguments that mutual-aid agreements with other volunteer departments and the city reduce staffing needs.

“There is a point in time when others could make an argument that we are relying too heavily on” that, when the city is ready each day to dispatch 21 to 26 firefighters to a call in the Treyburn park without financial compensation, Worsley said in the email.

But before the vote, Worsley told commissioners that Bahama Chief Len Needham during Monday morning’s meeting had explained what his “long-term plans are for personnel.”