KNIGHTDALE — Eastern Wake Fire and Rescue is stepping back from merger negotiations with Knightdale.
Earlier this year, the Wake County manager’s office encouraged Eastern Wake Fire and the 12 other county-funded departments to explore consolidation options in lieu of a projected $100,000 fire tax budget shortfall in 2014. County officials say the shortfall was caused because rural department budgets increased while their service areas – which are also their tax bases – decreased in recent years.
Eastern Wake Fire, which serves 17,292 people between Raleigh, Knightdale, Wendell and Garner, agreed to consider merging with Knightdale. But leaders of the independent station called off merger discussions with Knightdale after a July 11 meeting.
“Keeping personnel was one of the concerns,” said Troy Mitchell, a member of the department’s board. “We wanted to remain Eastern Wake Fire … and the community wanted to keep their fire department intact.”
In April, Knightdale proposed a merger that reduces Eastern Wake Fire personnel from 27 employees to 24 employees, slightly constricts the department’s service area, and transforms the Eastern Wake Fire station on Hester Street into an all-volunteer station. Knightdale staff estimated the proposal would decrease the combined cost of covering Knightdale and Eastern Wake Fire’s service areas from $2.69 million to $2.56 million.
Tim Guffey, Knightdale fire chief, described the proposal as a first draft that he expected to be revised and rewritten by the merger parties over months of negotiations.
Ray Broadwell, chairman of Eastern Wake Fire’s board of directors, balked at the proposal, saying “I don’t think they put a whole lot of thought into it.” At a special meeting on April 4, Eastern Wake Fire board members and firefighters told Knightdale officials they were uncomfortable with any proposal that eliminates jobs.
Eastern Wake Fire’s retreat from the negotiating table may only preserve the department for a few months. Wake County still faces a budget shortfall that needs to be addressed through cuts. Raising property taxes to boost revenue is not an option, Wake administrators have said.
“The conditions or factors that led us to have this discussion remain,” said Joe Durham, deputy county manager. “This is more a delay than anything else.”
Durham said the county will re-approach Eastern Wake Fire about consolidating within the next year. This year, the merger discussions were hindered by “negative feelings that emerged from the beginning,” he said.
“There were folks on the Eastern Wake (Fire) side that thought it felt more like a takeover,” Durham said.