State should stay out of ‘embarrassing family conflict’ with fire station, Wake says

Members of the Fairview community attend a Wake County Fire Commission meeting on Aug. 16, 2018, to learn the fate of Fairview Rural Fire Station No. 2.
Members of the Fairview community attend a Wake County Fire Commission meeting on Aug. 16, 2018, to learn the fate of Fairview Rural Fire Station No. 2. ajohnson@newsobserver.com

A legislative bill has Wake County leaders and a lame-duck North Carolina representative at odds over the future of a rural fire department.

N.C. Rep. Nelson Dollar filed House Bill 1110 last week to give the Ten Ten Fire District more autonomy after Wake County recommended closing one of its two fire stations earlier this year and moving part of the district’s fire service to a proposed station in Garner.

After residents rallied around the more than 50-year-old station, Wake County promised not to close it until a long-term study on fire coverage within the county.

“We are fully in opposition to this bill,” said Chris Dillon, Wake County assistant manager.

“It’s nice we are at the holidays because what you are seeing is an embarrassing family conflict being played out in front of you,” he told Dollar and other lawmakers Monday. “You should not be the judge and arbitrator. The county will deal with our issues internally.”

Despite the county reaffirming it won’t do anything until after it studies fire coverage, Fairview residents worry their station is still in danger of closing. If that happens, it will take firefighters longer to respond to calls in the district, Dollar said.

“That (Garner) project can’t be done at the detriment of the citizens who are served in the Ten-Ten Fire District,” he said. “A lot of this has to do with money.”

Dollar, a Republican who has served in the General Assembly since 2004, lost his re-election bid to Democrat Julie von Haefen in November.

The local bill took a step toward becoming law after it received a favorable recommendation from the House State and Local Government Committee on Monday afternoon. The bill will be discussed at 9:30 a.m. Wednesday during the House Committee on Finance meeting in room 544 in the Legislative Office Building.

Closing Fairview No. 2

Wake County has seen rural fire stations struggle to retain volunteers as urban sprawl from cities and towns creep into what’s left of Wake County’s rural spaces. In the summer 2017, the Bay Leaf and Stony Hill volunteer fire departments consolidated to become the Northern Wake Fire Department.

The Fairview Station No. 2 is one of two within the Ten-Ten Fire District, which spans 24 square miles between Garner and Apex. The proposed Garner station is about a mile away.

Fairview Fire Station No. 2 is located near the intersection of Ten-Ten and Lake Wheeler roads, while the proposed Garner Fire Station No. 5 is near the intersection of Ten-Ten Road and U.S. 401. Wake would pay Garner Fire Service to provide fire protection in the area formerly served by the Fairview station, saving the county $500,000 in operating costs.

“This (proposal) frankly came out of the blue,” Dollar said at Monday’s committee meeting. “The community sprung into action unlike anything I have ever seen.”

Wake County estimates that more than 45 percent of properties within the district would experience a longer wait for fire services with the move to joint station in Garner. Most of the increases would be 30 to 60 seconds longer while a handful could be three or four minutes longer. About 10 percent of property owners would experience faster response times, with the rest staying the same.

“There were more than enough families who got up and spoke and said if it weren’t for firefighters and first responders at Fairview No. 2 arriving in a timely manner, individuals would have lost their lives,” Dollar said.

‘Make you beg’

Wake County sets a uniform tax for fire service and protection throughout the county instead of approving individual tax rates for the 21 fire districts. Each fire department makes budget requests to the Wake County Fire Commission, which then recommends a rate to the Wake County Board of Commissioners to set.

If approved, the bill would remove the Ten-Ten Fire District from the county fire commission’s jurisdiction and allow the department to keep any money raised from the tax within the district. Fairview is considered a donor district, meaning some of the money generated from properties goes to fire service protection in less- wealthy areas.

The district is expected to bring in about $2 million in revenue with about $1.65 million in operating expenses. The remaining $381,000 would go to other fire districts. But Wake County Chief Operating Officer Johnna Rogers said the county also has system-wide costs that the district would have to cover if the bill is passed.

“The estimated system-wide costs which Fairview would have to absorb is approximately $475,000,” she said. That would leave the district with a projected deficit of $94,000.

Donald Pierce, a former Fairview fire chief and fire commission member who spoke in favor of the local bill, said he’d like to see Fairview remain open.

“We are very concerned about an attempted closure,” he said, adding that Wake County puts the fire money “in a pot and makes you beg for it. We want to return to the way it was.”

The switch to a uniform tax rate happened in 1999 and this bill would set the county back, Dillon said. If a precedent is set of fire districts leaving the uniform district, other wealthier districts could also ask for local bills to leave causing an equity and financial issue for the county, he said.

‘Wholly unconstitutional’

An updated version of the local bill also said that Wake County would be required to contract with the Fairview Rural Fire Department to provide fire protection services in the Ten-Ten district.

“That is wholly unconstitutional to require a county to contract with a specific nonprofit for services,” Dillon said.

The legislation wouldn’t affect how the fire departments within Wake County would work together, Dollar said. Wake County Commissioner Matt Calabria, who serves on the Wake County Fire Commission and represents the Fairview community, said this bill was an “extremely concerning development.”

“To dismantle a large portion of that fire service on the way out the door is extremely concerning and violates the basic premises of self governance,” he said.

Wake County Commissioner Chair Jessica Holmes said Dollar had filed this bill “out of spite.”

“It’s very unfortunate,” she said. “Our board has expressed our disappointment with this last-minute effort to cause confusion that seems more intentional than productive.”

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Anna Johnson covers Raleigh and Wake County for the News & Observer. She has previously covered city government, crime and business for newspapers across North Carolina and received many North Carolina Press Association awards, including first place for investigative reporting. She is a 2012 alumna of Elon University.
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