Commissioners mull fire study’s advice

Feb. 03, 2014 @ 07:03 PM

County Commissioners have scheduled a vote next week on whether they’ll endorse the advice of a study that’s urging big changes to the way they organize rural firefighting.

The decision followed a lengthy briefing on Monday about the study’s findings from Interim County Manager Lee Worsley, and a move by the chief of the Bahama Volunteer Fire Department to voice disagreement with two key recommendations.

An endorsement vote is important, given the amount of time administrators will have to implement the study over the next two years, and for the fact they’ll be establishing “a whole new policy framework for how we’re going to deal with” the rural fire service, Commissioner Ellen Reckhow said.

None of the commissioners voiced any reservations about the biggest change the study suggests, a move by the county to transfer responsibility for firefighting in southern and western Durham from four volunteer departments to the city Fire Department.

One of the two south Durham volunteer departments involved, Bethesda, ceased operation as an independent nonprofit last year and is now county-run.

The other, Parkwood, is under scrutiny for cash-flow problems. It and Bethesda also serve districts that have lost a lot of territory and revenue potential to city annexations.

The two departments involved in western Durham, Eno and New Hope, are based in Orange County and cover only small portions of Durham County.

County officials can change fire-coverage responsibilities in the affected areas by simply signing a contract for coverage with the city. Worsley said that administrators want to open contract talks with an eye toward implementing the change in the summer of 2015.

Officials said the rationale for the change lies not just in the carved-up districts of the south Durham departments, but also in the coverage needs of the Research Triangle Park. State law bars the city from annexing the industrial park, but fighting a fire requires the sort of equipment that’s more typical of a city department.

That’s especially true given RTP’s growth plans, Reckhow said.

“We’re going to have a very different type of RTP” if those plans bear fruit, she said. “They could eventually have as many as 100,000 additional employees, and high-rise residential units.”

By contrast, the three nonprofit, volunteer departments that serve northern Durham likely will continue to do so, as the watershed rules that govern the land around Falls Lake and the city’s two reservoirs restrict the area’s growth potential.

The study recommends the county exercising tighter oversight of the departments, via contract terms establishing common salary scales for personnel, joint capital planning and monitoring by the county fire marshal’s office of call response.

But Bahama’s chief, Len Needham, indicated that some of those changes might not go down well.

He singled out proposals that call for minimum station-staffing levels that Worsley acknowledged will hit the Bahama department.

It would have to make sure it has three firefighters on hand 24/7 at its main station, and two firefighters around the clock at each of its two substations. It now operates at any given time with two at the main station and one at each of the substations.

Needham said a boost in staffing would increase the department’s costs, contra the desires of the department’s leaders to keep the property tax surcharge paid by residents in the Bahama district low.

“It’s a lot of cost to put on the taxpayers, and we’d like to see a cost analysis done,” he said.

But commissioners noted that the Bahama district has a near-rock-bottom insurance rating, one that the study recommends bringing up closer to the levels of other north Durham fire districts.

That would likely translate into lower insurance premiums for homeowners. Price quotes county officials obtained while researching the issue suggested savings ranging from $107 to $149 a year for the owner of a $100,000 house.

“There may be some communication that needs to happen” about such tradeoffs, Commissioner Brenda Howerton said, noting officials already fielded a complaint about possible fire-tax increases from a Bahama resident.

The other issue Needham raised dealt with a staff recommendation, separate from advice turned in by the consultants, which favors barring volunteer departments from putting their own staffers on their nonprofit boards.

The possible conflicts of interest involved are obvious, as staffers serving on a nonprofit board would be in a position to hire or fire their own boss or make decisions affecting their own pay.

Worsley said county staff would favor allowing only a department’s chief to serve as an “ex-officio,” non-voting member of its board.

Needham, however, said the Bahama department has an experienced board that presides over an operation that’s remained “financially sound from” the day of its founding in 1960.

Worsley during a break in Monday’s meeting said four of Bahama’s nine board members are department staffers. He couldn’t say whether other volunteer departments have staff members on their boards.