01/17/12 — County: Survey not bid to take over

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County: Survey not bid to take over

By Steve Herring
Published in News on January 17, 2012 1:46 PM

A county government survey of its volunteer fire departments is absolutely not intended as the beginning of an effort to take over their operations, County Manager Lee Smith says.

The survey is intended to give county officials an idea of where and how best to help the 28 independent departments that contract with the county to provide fire protection, he said, nothing more.

Smith noted that such a takeover would force a 10-12 cent increase in the Wayne's property tax rate -- and that is definitely not under consideration.

"As a county we need to make sure that we are doing the things that we need to be doing as it relates to contracts with these folks as it relates to fire service," Smith said. "The county has no intention of taking over fire service.

"I have approximately 1,200 volunteer firefighters. If the departments were a mix of full-time and part-time -- the county has about 1,000 full- and part-time employees and the payroll is more than $3 million a month, it would between $3 million and $4 million just in payroll (to add the firefighters). That would be about 8 cents on the tax rate just for personnel and you have not gotten to equipment yet or housing them or buying gas. You are talking 10 to 12 cents on the tax rate to have full- and part-time folks. Then just doing it would double county staff. That is not going to happen."

Smith said when the county leadership looks at county departments and there is duplication, they have to decide whether it is better to consolidate and have one instead of two. The same could apply to fire departments.

"It is very controversial, but you still have to discuss it," he said. "Sometimes it can just be a matter of sharing services. A merger can be a lot of things. You are merging resources and people, but the corporations stay separate. There are a lot of ways.

"I understand the misgiving. It's scary because you are afraid of what you are going to hear."

Some volunteer departments serve more densely populated and commercial areas that have larger tax bases to better support them, Smith said. However, the smaller departments are expected to serve at the same level as the larger ones.

The county fire district tax can be as high as 15 cents per $100 of value, he said. However, a "gentleman's agreement" was reached in the late 1980s or early 1990s that the departments would not go above 8 cents.

"There are some who have hit that and are sitting there," Smith said. "There are a couple going, 'I don't know if I can make it.' If that is the cas,e do we need to examine that? Do we need to say let them got to 9, let them go to 10? I don't know. All those things have to be examined."

Pennsylvania-based VIFS is the the company conducting the survey. The firm was hired last year to help analyze the current and future capabilities and needs of each department.

Public comment is also being sought. Between now and Jan. 31, county residents are being encouraged to tell the county what they think of the current level of service they receive from their fire department, what services they look for from a fire department, and any other thoughts or opinions they may have regarding fire delivery service.

Those comments may be e-mailed to fire.safety@waynegov.com or written comments may be dropped off at the Wayne County Manager's Office on the fourth floor of the county courthouse annex between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m., Monday through Friday, between now and Jan. 31.

"Volunteers have done a great job and continue to do a great job, but the business of fire service has changed," Smith said. "For the volunteers, there are some groups out there that really struggle and we realize that."

"The (fire tax) money we collect for fire departments, those are public funds. I have a responsibility to any taxpayer who comes in and says, 'How were dollars spent?' I have to be able to answer those questions and in some cases I might not be able to answer that."

The survey will look at things like line-item budgets for departments and possible ways to save money, whether volunteers have the equipment they need and is the county doing all that it needs to be doing, Smith said.

"Volunteerism is tough," he said. "They struggle with getting volunteers and struggle with the ones they have for the number of training hours required. So how can we better work with the fire departments to make sure they are getting their folks trained? That they are doing the things financially that they need to be doing. One thing it might be interesting look at is how we can work with fire departments to save money."

A common problem is equipment, Smith said. It might be possible to look at needs across numerous department and "piggy-back" those equipment bids on other bids, both in and out of state, to get a better price, he said.

"You look at everything," he said. "It is an assessment for the county -- are we doing the things that we need to be doing for them? But also are they able to carry out what are expectations are? Some of these are smaller or more rural departments, but a house fire is a house fire and the expectation of the person in that home is the same as it is for the person sitting in Goldsboro, sitting in Mount Olive. The expectations are that you will be here within a certain timeframe."

Also to be looked at are the response times and whether the tone outs are being handled as they should, he said.

The survey should take 45 to 60 days to complete.

"We hope that people will send us useful comments about how people feel about fire service. Any time you go through an assessment, I think we all have to be prepared for good stuff and bad stuff, for complement and criticism."

Smith said he could not speculate on what the survey might reveal and that any changes could take years to implement.

The ultimate decision will be made by both the county commissioners and the fire departments, he said.