Suggested fire consolidation only for tax districts, county says

Dec. 11, 2013 @ 09:12 PM

 A fire-service merger suggested by consultants would affect only the tax districts of rural Durham County’s five main volunteer fire departments, not the nonprofit groups that run four of them, a deputy county manager says.

The nonprofits that run the Bahama, Lebanon, Parkwood and Redwood departments “would still be in existence” even if county officials follow the advice they’ve been given to create northern and southern tax districts, Deputy County Manager Lee Worsley said.

The fifth department, Bethesda, is now a county-run operation. Its nonprofit surrendered control earlier this year, deciding it couldn’t make ends meet any more after losing a service contract from neighboring Raleigh.

The surviving nonprofits, even under the consultants’ recommendation, would still be “separate entities” and county contractors, “and as entities they’d have a lot of control over what they do with their nonprofit,” Worsley said.

But it’s far from clear how much real authority the nonprofits would retain over operations.

County officials are mulling suggestions that they establish a common pay scale for all five departments and a common capital-improvement plan to govern their equipment purchases and building upkeep.

Consultants also have advised making all of the departments’ firefighters county employees, and creating within the county Emergency Management Department a supervisory post for the department chiefs to “work and communicate directly with.”

Those suggestions and others “point toward an increasing role” for the county in the management of the departments, Worsley acknowledged.

Worsley is the county’s point man as administrators prepare a report on the study of the fire service for County Commissioners that will take place in early February or early April.

The study began last year at the behest of County Manager Mike Ruffin, who has said he’d like to see “a uniform fire service across the county.”

Ruffin is retiring on Jan. 31, and has made Worsley the study’s shepherd to ensure continuity as the commissioners continue the search for a new manager.

The Charlotte-based consultants advised consolidating the present Lebanon, Bahama and Redwood tax and service districts. They cover northern and northeast Durham.

On the other end of the county, the consultants favor consolidating the Bethesda and Parkwood districts, and eventually turning to the city to provide fire coverage in them.

They expect south Durham to continue to urbanize, trends that already have led to city annexation of much of the two departments’ former territory.

District consolidation has the potential to make for more efficient service decisions as the county grows, Worsley said.

“Traditionally, we’ve mirrored the response area with the tax district,” though it’s the practice nowadays to dispatch the unit that’s closest to a fire or medical call no matter which district the call’s from, he said.

The study also addressed four other departments, based in other counties, that serve parts of Durham.

In western Durham, consultants advise asking the city to take over coverage of two areas now served by the Orange County-based New Hope and Eno fire departments.

And in the far north, they likewise suggest considering whether Bahama could take over areas now covered by Butner and Moriah fire departments, based in Granville and Person counties respectively.

The four remaining nonprofits all rely heavily on tax dollars, whether from county property tax surcharges or compensation payments from the city for past annexations. Parkwood and Redwood also receive money from EMS fees.

Their tax filings for fiscal 2011-12 show that Bahama, Lebanon and Parkwood obtained 94 percent, 97 percent and 96 percent of their revenue, respectively, from taxes or EMS fees. Redwood was in the same ballpark after accounting for a loss on an asset sale.

Full-time firefighters in the Lebanon department are already county employees, hired by Emergency Management Director Jeff Batten, Worsley said. That was also true of Bethesda while it was still under nonprofit ownership.