Editorial: County can’t let Bethesda fail

Apr. 04, 2013 @ 07:30 PM

Sadly, the fire’s in danger of going out for at least one Durham volunteer fire department.

County commissioners on Monday shared no objections to plans to take over Bethesda Volunteer Fire Department, one of seven in the county.

But, The Herald-Sun’s Ray Gronberg reported this week, commissioners Ellen Reckhow and Fred Foster did voice concerns about what Bethesda’s troubles might mean for the other nonprofit volunteer departments.

Bethesda’s decline seems to stem primarily from the loss of a major contract with the city of Raleigh, which had brought $249,370 to the Durham volunteer department in 2010-11.

But it doesn’t help that the department appears to be volunteer mostly by name, racking up $2.4 million in expenses for fiscal 2010-11 to manage two fire stations, employ 19 full-time firefighters and another 25 or 26 part-timers. The department only brought in about $2.2 million in revenue.

Under the county’s proposed takeover plan, the county would keep the current full-time firefighters and add 11 more to replace the part-time firefighter slots. Residents of the Bethesda fire district who pay 10 cents per $100 of assessed value would likely see a rate increase to 13 cents.

Reckhow complained about Bethesda’s “illogical service area” due to city annexations and said she hopes that a study of Durham’s fire service will make officials smarter about spending.

Foster worried about Parkwood and other nonprofit departments in the area that might require similar bailouts. But tax records indicate that Parkwood, specifically, is in much better shape, with a $102,203 surplus for 2010-11.

It’s simple fiscal reality at work for Bethesda, though. The county can’t afford to let the department collapse because it serves a critical need by covering Research Triangle Park, including the IBM complex.

Ultimately, though, it’s also a matter of practicality. The nostalgic days of the old neighborhood volunteer fire department are long behind us. With technological and liability costs ever-rising in urban areas, we must adequately fund professional firefighting operations.

Commissioners expect to hold a public hearing about Bethesda in June.