Commissioners fear Bethesda troubles a bellwether

Apr. 01, 2013 @ 07:46 PM

County Commissioners voiced no objections Monday to plans for their government to take over the financially strapped Bethesda Volunteer Fire Department.

A briefing from administrators set the stage for a public hearing for residents of the Bethesda district that Deputy County Manager Lee Worsley said would occur in June, following a round of public notices the month before.

Two commissioners, however, signaled that they see the takeover proposal less as a short-term bailout of the Bethesda department than as a sign the county has to pay more attention to what’s going on with the six volunteer departments that will remain.

Bethesda itself has “a totally illogical service area” that’s been pockmarked by city annexations, Commissioner Ellen Reckhow said, adding she hopes an ongoing study of Durham’s fire service could help officials become “smarter about how we allocate resources” and thus save taxpayers money.

Commissioners Chairman Fred Foster followed up on Reckhow’s comments by making it clear he’s worried the finances of the remaining volunteer departments could make the takeover just the first in a series.

“Aren’t we in this same situation with Parkwood and some of the other nonprofits?” he asked, alluding to the groups the county relies on to provide fire protection outside the city limits.

Worsley answered that he’s hoping officials “don’t run into these issues” with the others, in part because they’ve launched a $68,300 study precisely to consider a reorganization of the fire service.

He estimated that the study should produce results in four to five months. Meanwhile, Bethesda “is a short-term issue we have to address right now,” he said.

Directors of the nonprofit that controls the Bethesda department have asked for a county takeover because their organization is running out of money.

The most recent widely available tax filing for the Bethesda department shows that it ran a $214,536 deficit in fiscal 2010-11, taking in about $2.2 million in revenue while incurring $2.4 million in costs.

The department has since lost a major service contract from the city Raleigh. The Wake County city paid Bethesda $249,370 in fiscal 2010-11.

Bethesda operates two fire stations and employs 19 full-time firefighters. It has another 25 or 26 firefighters on staff who work part-time, county Emergency Management Director Jeff Batten said.

The county in taking over would retain the 19 full-timers and add 11 more full-time positions to do the work of the part-timers.

Residents of the Bethesda fire district pay for the operation via a tax surcharge. It’s now capped at 10 cents per $100 of assessed value thanks to the terms of a referendum in the 1960s.

County officials would establish, using their government’s legal authority, a new district identical geographically to the existing one that would lack the cap on the tax rate. They figure the new district will have a rate of 13 cents per $100 of value.

The department needs special equipment and a paid staff because it’s responsible for covering RTP – including the IBM complex, the computing giant’s largest U.S. operation.

As for Foster’s question, tax filings for south Durham’s Parkwood Volunteer Fire Department show that it was in significantly better financial shape than Bethesda in fiscal 2010-11.

It ran a $102,203 surplus, raising $4.1 million while spending just under $4 million.