City likely to end subsidies of Parkwood VFD

Mar. 30, 2014 @ 11:41 PM

Judging that their government won’t get value in return for it, city officials are moving to terminate a $143,130 annual subsidy of the Parkwood Volunteer Fire Department.

Administrators will ask the City Council to endorse the cutoff next month, coupling to it a request to give the Parkwood department a one-time, $64,310 settlement payment.

City Manager Tom Bonfield and other officials are supporting the settlement proposal because the two sides until this winter had appeared likely to continue the annual subsidy.

But that changed after questions surfaced about both the financial stability and operations of the Parkwood department, questions that prompted the county government to seek the appointment of a trustee to watch over its affairs.

Now, the city will rely on its own forces to be the first responder to fires in the south Durham neighborhoods it has annexed over the years.

“It’s pretty clear we have the capability, and those capabilities are above the capabilities of the Parkwood Volunteer Fire Department,” Bonfield said.

County officials are aware of the city’s proposal and aren’t raising any objections, despite the hit it means to Parkwood’s finances.

“I expect Parkwood to make operational adjustments to address this and know that they are accounting for it as they develop their plans for the future,” Interim County Manager Lee Worsley said.

He added that the trustee, Ray Echevarria, also knows of the city’s intentions.

The city initially began subsidizing the Parkwood department as state-mandated compensation for having annexed neighborhoods in the department’s service district.

State law requires five years of post-annexation payments to cushion volunteer departments against the loss of tax revenue they’d counted on.

But it doesn’t mandate a permanent subsidy, which means any contributions by the city at this point are voluntary.

Officials have considered an aid cutoff once before, in 2007 at the urging of then-Deputy City Manager Ted Voorhees. They backed off after homeowners in Parkwood’s namesake subdivision, one of the largest in south Durham, voiced doubts that the city Fire Department could adequately cover their neighborhood.

The complaints carried with them the hint that some Parkwood residents were still raw over the city’s controversial 1997 annexation of their neighborhood.

The reality even at the time, however, was that most of the trucks and personnel responding to fire calls in Parkwood and other affected neighborhoods were coming from the Durham Fire Department.

And the events of last fall and winter appear to have changed the political calculus for city officials.

After hearing of problems at one fire scene, and worried by an audit that suggested Parkwood department officials had been dipping into an insurance reserve to cover day-to-day operating expenses, Worsley asked the city Fire Department to backstop the Parkwood volunteers on all fire calls in their district.

That arrangement lasted for two months, ending in mid-February at the county’s request. But the incident spurred an in-house review at City Hall of whether it made sense to continue subsiding the Parkwood department.

In a memo, Durham Fire Chief Dan Curia said the city told Parkwood officials of their intentions in early February and received word back later in the month that the department’s board had accepted the settlement proposal.