06/01/08 — Duplin fire departments hope for funding increase

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Duplin fire departments hope for funding increase

By Steve Herring
Published in News on June 1, 2008 2:52 AM

KENANSVILLE -- Duplin County Firemen's Association President Winslow Tew of Albertson is expected to make the case for doubling the funding for the county's all-volunteer fire services at county commissioners' Monday night budget hearing at 6 p.m. at the N.C. Cooperative Extension Service office.

Tew, who is hoping for a big turnout, said people "make a difference."

"Numbers count," he said.

Tew was hesitant to reveal his strategy for addressing commissioners, but he readily spoke about the plight faced by the departments and the communities they serve.

Tew, who served as chief of the Albertson Fire Department for 17 years, said he will try to convince commissioners to increase the level of annual funding for the departments from the current $24,000 per department to $48,000.

He said that Duplin's fire service is being challenged by a dwindling pool of volunteers who must meet expanding state training guidelines, funding woes and the increasing costs of maintaining a viable department. The problems are not unique to Duplin County, he said.

Initially, they sought $2 million in the 2008-09 county budget for the departments, but that toal was later whittled down to $1,008,000 -- still a 100-percent increase over 2007-08.

However, commissioners, in their budget proposal, sliced that request to just $25,000 -- a 5-percent increase for a total allocation of $525,000.

And there is no mention in the budget of a 10-cent countywide fire tax that had been suggested to commissioners earlier this year by the Duplin County Fire Tax Advisory Committee as a way to fund the departments. The committee is chaired by Tew.

Failure to provide an adequate level of funding, he said, could lead to the demise of some departments and to a decline in safety and a department's ability to perform its duties.

He explained that $15,000 to $18,000 of a department's budget is consumed by insurance costs. Another $5,000 goes just to operate a department -- leaving very little of the $24,000 the departments receive from the county to cover any other expenses.

For example, he said, a fire fighter's turnout gear should be replaced every eight to 10 years.

"We have some departments in the county that cannot afford to do that," he said.

Another concern is the time commitment, Tew said.

Fire fighters are required by the state to complete 36 hours of training annually. Departments may require another 80 or more training hours per year. Add to that the time fire fighters spend at department meetings and answering calls and fundraising, and the time mounts up, he said.

"Getting volunteers today is a lot harder than 10 to 12 years ago," he said. "In today's world it requires mom and dad to work just to provide for a family. It is hard for some to find the time to be a volunteer. It is not that they don't want to, it is just they can't afford to."

Duplin County Emergency Services Director Brian Pearce agrees.

"The days of (volunteers) just being able to pick and leave (to answer a call) are gone," he said.

Pearce said the county needs to be planning for three, five and 10 years down the road.

Currently all of the county's approximately 500 fire fighters are volunteers although some of the municipal departments are beginning to look at paid fire fighters, he said.

"The volunteers provide a service the county could not afford to provide without them," he said.

Tew estimates it could cost upwards of $3 million to establish just one paid fire department.

He added, "Until our county commissioners realize the importance of the fire departments that they fund and how great of an asset it is for $1 million, some (departments) could just fold up and go under.

"I understand that people don't want to pay property tax. I own property myself. People have got to understand that in order to have fire departments, well-functioning EMS (emergency medical services), a sheriff's office to combat drugs and gangs, as well as keeping education the best it can be and social services then they have to come out of taxpayers' money -- property taxes."