Garner Volunteer Fire and Rescue Chief Matt Poole regards fire funding levels as inadequate. So he’s working to find new revenue on his own.
Poole proposed a “motor vehicle accident cost recovery” program to the council, one that could generate tens of thousands of dollars per year for capital needs by recouping some costs of tending to car crashes.
“We’re not billing anyone (under the plan), we’re asking for reimbursement from the insurance company of the person at fault,” Poole said.
The council supported the idea, but the plan would need approval of the county, which shares funding responsibilities for Garner Fire with the town. Of particular concern to Poole and the council is whether the county would simply count any revenue from the program against its allocation for Garner Fire, thus only saving the county money, not Garner Fire.
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“If that occurs, we‘re just taking on additional responsibility for no reason,” Poole said. “My biggest concern will be, ‘Will it come off our operational requests next year?’”
In the plan, the fire department would file claims against out-of-county drivers who cause accidents on major Garner roads. The practice, one becoming more commonplace nationwide and similar to the EMS system, takes advantage of riders written into most insurance policies that cover costs of emergency providers.
Poole, who said he has been kicking around the idea for two years, said he would not need any new staff. Contractors do all the administrative work of filing insurance claims in exchange for a cut of the money awarded.
He also said only out-of-county drivers would have their insurance claims billed. Since residents already pay into the fire tax, Poole said he thinks it would be unethical to make them pay for the service twice, even if ultimately it was the insurance company that paid.
Down the road in Cleveland, Johnston County has been doing something similar, and in two years has filed 146 claims and collected $26,000 on the 49 approved and processed claims. Though Cleveland charges all drivers outside of merely the fire district rather than the county, Poole suggested Garner Fire should be able to at least double that because of higher numbers of crashes. He said his territory has 30 miles of interstate and thoroughfares and that Garner Fire responded to 394 vehicle wrecks in one year.
He has already selected a preferred company to contract: Fire Recovery USA charges 20 percent of recovered claims, which Poole called middle of the road, but has a top-end recovery rate of 80 percent and solid customer satisfaction reports.
Good faith effort
For Poole, the effort symbolizes more than a search to fix capital needs. He hopes it indirectly draws attention to the fire tax in Wake County, which was lowered in 2008 to 8 cents from 10 cents and is, according to Poole, too low to provide the level of service residents are accustomed to.
“We’re trying to show a good faith effort that we are doing everything we can to generate revenue,” Poole said.
Poole notes that Clayton has a 10-cent fire tax, and that fire department does not provide the same level of service and full-time staffing as the fire departments in Wake County.
Garner Fire in particular has comparatively limited funding, with a substantially lower budget compared to other Wake County departments in terms of per-population or per-emergency call figures, and as a percentage of the municipal budget.
The process to get the county commissioners to approve of the plan still has a number of steps. Whether the revenue could be reserved could be a possible sticking point.
“I think you hit the nail on the head when you asked if it would be a hold-harmless (not affecting county budgeting) program,” councilman Buck Kennedy said. “That’s going to be a political football.”
The county budgets $100,000 combined for repairs to stations of the 19 fire departments it helps directly fund, most of which have multiple stations and trucks.