Local fire departments are facing a 5 percent cut, a prospect that would not only affect the volunteer units themselves but could adversely impact emergency response to citizens as well as their insurance costs down the road.
The proposed 2014-15 Sampson County budget currently calls for a 5.25-cent tax hike (whittled down from an initial 9 cents), however all departments in the county were directed by the Board of Commissioners last month to cut 5 percent permanently off their respective budgets for further review by the board during the interim budget period.
Volunteer fire departments were not spared and, along with others, will be placed firmly under the microscope during a workshop that will span the day this Wednesday, July 23.
“It’s not just going to hurt us, it’s going to hurt all the fire departments in the county and it’s going to affect the whole county and every citizen in the county,” Roseboro Volunteer Fire Department Chief Bobby Owen said of the proposed 5 percent slash.
Owen’s department currently has 24 volunteers, a far cry from upward of 40 volunteers the department had in the early 1980s when Owen came aboard. Volunteers put in a great deal of time and effort — requirements have only become more taxing — and seek the county’s assistance to help extend a service for which they do not even get paid, he attested.
“The ISO (Insurance Services Office) requires they have so many hours of training per year and we have to require they have so many hours of training per month. It just takes a lot of time for the volunteers to come down here and train,” Owen noted. “Last month, there was 219 hours that the whole fire department trained and we did not get reimbursed for any of that training. That’s time that we take away from our family, our home and our jobs.”
Firefighters do receive $10 a call, which pays for some of the wear and tear on their personal vehicles and gas expenses. However, if you weigh the amount of hours put in on a call, which brings hazards all its own, as well as the training and time at the station, the stipend is minuscule to say the least.
It has never been about the pay per call. It is the service being done for the community, many say.
However, the job has gotten tougher with less money and more mandates. Compounding that is a change in times that has seen the economy slide and some employers not as understanding of volunteer firefighters leaving during a shift.
“Now, we’re lucky if we get three or four people to go out on a truck,” Owen said.
With less funding, the situation will only get more dire.
Plain View Fire Department Chief Ken Jackson, president of the Sampson County Fireman’s Association, alluded to the volunteer problem to commissioners earlier this month. He said Plain View and others made a goal several years ago to have part-time staff to offset decreased volunteer numbers.
“I didn’t ask for an increase in my taxes, I didn’t come ask you for any money and none of these other fire departments are either,” Jackson told the board at its July 7 regular meeting. “Right now we have departments that cannot staff a truck adequately because we don’t have the volunteers we used to have. And these fire departments have used these budgets this year to try to add some part-time staff.”
“If we get this 5 percent cut, some departments are not going to be able to do that,” he said.
Fire service district tax rates range from 6.5 cents to 10 cents across the county. Additionally, the departments receive an annual allocation of $6,900, dispensed in monthly increments, as well as any fire medic supplements if departments have such capabilities.
While fire district tax dollars will offer support, if county dollars are diminished that will dig a sizable hole for some volunteer units.
“I think all the departments will feel some impact,” Clinton Fire Chief Adon Snyder said. “The fact is over the last couple years budgets have been so lean, so any additional cuts — whether it is 1 percent or 5 percent — is certainly going to affect operations. There is just not much to give there. It will probably change the way services are delivered.”
“Everybody will do their best to maintain a high level of service, but it is very difficult to maintain that as the funding dwindles,” Snyder noted.
The Clinton’s Fire Department does not rely as much on county funding as volunteer departments, but gets supplements from the county just the same.
“The way it will affect us is probably the level of service we give,” Snyder commented. “We currently get supplements from the county for rescue and technical rescue. We would probably have to eliminate one of those services, then they would probably have to rely on rescue services for one of the volunteer (squads). And if they can’t provide it, you’re looking as far away as Fayetteville or somewhere like that. There would be a huge delay.”
Emergency Management director Ronald Bass has already said services would likely face a significant dip and personnel would have to be sent home with a 5 percent cut. Likewise, response times would go up, he echoed.
“If we cut anyone, the impact will be felt in delayed transport times and delayed response times,” Bass said.
“Emergency Services, as a whole, has made great strides,” Jackson stated. “We’ve added ambulances, put people on the road and we have people who can get there now where we didn’t. We’re at a higher level than we’ve ever been and these cuts are going to put us going backwards.”
The supplements are a low percentage of the fire department’s budget but Snyder and Owen attested to the value of every buck.
“It’s a very low percentage of our overall budget, however the service we provide is a very important service and without that funding we would probably have to discontinue or change it to some (lower) level,” Snyder conceded.
Clinton has shifts on duty around the clock, including four full-timers all day, every day. From 7 a.m.-7 p.m., there are six people on duty. From 7 p.m. to 7 a.m., there are seven people at the station. In addition to the four full-time personnel, the rest of the staffing is with part-time help.
Even with its paid staff, it looks to its fellow county departments for help.
“None of the departments, including Clinton, has the resources they need. The fact is we rely on each other every day, whether it is the volunteer departments coming into the City of Clinton or Clinton going out and assisting the departments disbursed throughout the county,” said Snyder.
A big part of that is the ISO ratings. The state actually requires a minimum of 12 firefighters on the scene of a structure fire for the city to maintain its insurance rating.
“If we have six on duty, we are very reliant on the volunteer fire department helping us out in meeting that staffing level,” Snyder asserted. “As funds begin to diminish, it affects the impact and we struggle with assembling the needed resources on these calls. So, eventually it impacts the insurance ratings to every resident within Sampson County, and there’s a potential for an increase at some point further down the road when the state comes back in and evaluates our local fire departments.”
“We are just barely getting by with what money we’ve got now to keep our equipment, all of the upgrades and requirements that we’ve got to have,” said Owen, citing ISO, as well as the N.C. Department of Insurance and the Office of the State Fire Marshal among others. “That 5 percent is going to impact us a tremendous amount. I don’t know why they’re wanting to do that.”
When on a tight budget, every dollar counts, especially when it is never known when an unforeseen expense might arise.
Owen said it was not been that long ago that the Roseboro Fire Department responded to a chicken house fire and was suddenly faced with one of those unforeseen circumstances.
“We were pumping water and everything was going fine and we had the fire knocked down, and all of a sudden we had one of the pumps tear up on the truck. That’s an added expense that we did not anticipate we were going to have. If they cut us 5 percent, that 5 percent could help fix that truck,” he remarked. “I just don’t really see where the county can justify cutting the fire departments 5 percent.”
The impact will not be seen merely with diminishing resources for a life-threatening emergency call, but it will making it that much tougher to keep insurance costs for property owners at, or below, their current levels.
While the 5 percent across the board cut has not been approved, Owen said it would be a blow for fire departments, citizens and an entire county of taxpayers.
“Whenever it affects us and everybody’s insurance goes up, they’ll need to take it up with the (county commissioners). They’re the ones to blame. We can’t keep insurance levels down if we keep getting cut.”
Chris Berendt can be reached at 910-249-4616. Follow us on twitter @SampsonInd.