County strategy for fire-district taxes criticized

Jun. 10, 2014 @ 09:44 PM

County officials and the leaders of Durham’s rural fire departments are once again butting heads over the county’s strategy for reorganizing and paying for fire service.

The departments’ objections focus on a proposal from County Manager Wendell Davis and his staff to fund a new division chief and a new data analyst in the county fire marshal’s office with money drawn from rural fire-district taxes.

Deputy County Manager Lee Worsley said the proposal blunts the double-taxation issue that would arise for residents of the city of Durham if officials pay for the new hires out of the countywide tax base.

“City residents have a city fire department,” he said. “Those positions will be supporting the unincorporated fire departments directly. The residents who reside in the [city] should not be burdened with having to pay for those positions.”

But the proposal is drawing flak from people like Randy Clements, the chief of the Redwood Volunteer Fire Department.

Clements told County Commissioners on Tuesday he thinks the staff’s suggestion is illegal, at least under the wording of his department’s service contract with the county as of fiscal 2012-13.

Moreover, the money should stay in the districts to support actual firefighting, he said.

“I oppose any of our fire tax money supporting any position in the county fire marshal’s office,” Clements said. “I don’t think it needs to be sold on the back of what I’m trying to do in my community.”

Worsley responded by noting that the old contract language is “not the entire confines” of what the county can do with fire-district tax money under state law.

The county is in the midst of revamping rural fire-service – and reworking its contracts with the rural fire departments – in response to a study that called for beefing up staffing, service and oversight standards.

Also sparking the move is last year’s county takeover of the Bethesda fire department after the department’s former nonprofit owner ran out of money, and the financial troubles of the Parkwood Volunteer Fire Department.

Worsley said the Bethesda takeover and other fire-service issues have left the county’s fire marshal and emergency management director, Jeff Batten, stretched thin.

“His ability to focus on other issues important for his department, like emergency management [and] inspections, is not at the level it needs to be,” Worsley said.
“The demand on the fire side has gotten to the point he needs to have an individual managing fire suppression activities.”

The division chief would become that person, he added.

The data analyst, meanwhile, would help the county meet the state’s reporting demands and give the rural fire departments “the data they need to make smart decisions about where to put resources,” Worsley said.

County Commissioners voiced mixed feelings on the matter, signaling that they want some sort of compromise.

Commissioner Ellen Reckhow called for a “fair-share approach” in line with the desire to avoid “having people paying for fire service with city taxes also supporting suppression outside the city limits.”

She added that there’s an argument that the Bethesda district, the immediate cause of Batten’s troubles, should bear a larger share of the costs of the division chief’s position.

But commissioners Chairman Michael Page wasn’t worried as much about the double-taxation issue as he was about preserving the rural fire departments as community institutions.

“It sounds like an issue we need to deal with as opposed to placing that burden on the departments,” he said of the financial question, adding that he’d grown up in a small town with a volunteer fire department. “We need to find a happy medium here.”

He added that he’s worried the county is “penalizing all these folks because of one or two operations there were not handled appropriately.”

Worsley promised to look into a compromise solution, likely focusing just on funding the division chief’s position and re-examining the funding split.

There were no complaints Tuesday about another fire-related proposal in Davis’ budget, an increase in staffing for the Bahama, Redwood and Lebanon volunteer departments.

The extra hires will boost the number of firefighters each department has on duty at any given time, improving their ability to respond to fire calls.

To pay for the changes, Davis requested increases in the Lebanon, Redwood, Bahama and Bethesda fire-district property tax surcharges, respectively, of 0.7 cents per $100 of assessed value, 2.75 cents, 3.9 cents and 0.5 cents.

Bahama Fire Chief Len Needham over the winter criticized a county proposal, triggered by the fire study, for an even bigger expansion of his departments force.