Garner Cleveland Record

Garner Fire managing shoestring budget well

Lt. Jeff Wommack, Cpt. Tim Rooks and Lt. Robbie Beasley work on a fire vehicle at Garner Volunteer Fire-Rescue Station 1 on West Main Street Tuesday.
Lt. Jeff Wommack, Cpt. Tim Rooks and Lt. Robbie Beasley work on a fire vehicle at Garner Volunteer Fire-Rescue Station 1 on West Main Street Tuesday. kbettis@newsobserver.com

The Garner Volunteer Fire-Rescue Department may be working off of an impossibly tight budget, but their financial standing is clear.

Fire Chief Matthew Poole and CPA JoEllen Wilkes presented the town council with a clean bill of financial health.

The audit examined their three accounts: the daily operating account, the concession account which provides for Fireman’s Day, and a third account for the fireman’s relief fund, which is reserved for injuries in the line of duty, scholarships, physicals and other special employee needs.

Of the 84 square miles that the department is responsible for, 60 percent of emergency calls come from Garner – which the town is responsible for funding – and the rest from the county.

Poole said this division is under examination to potentially re-sort the cost share for the town and the county.

Poole said the department is moving toward increased transparency with their finances, including to their stakeholders such as the board and town council. To that end, he has added bi-monthly meetings with the council, and plans to hand over a statistical report to the council at the year’s end.

With 56 paid employees, 40 volunteers, four fire stations and a payroll of nearly $2.4 million, the department leans heavily on town and county support.

Shoestring budget

Despite the productive use of dollars, Garner Fire comes to citizens’ rescue under a suffocatingly tight budget.

According to the audit, the department only has nine working days of available cash in the fund balance of their operating account. Poole said the contracts with the town and county provide a steady stream of income.

Unlike most private companies, the department has to work backward for their budget for the fiscal year.

“Our concern is adequate funding,” Poole said. “We receive more emergency calls than any town in Wake County, but we have one of the lowest budgets.”

The department also has one of the lowest cost for emergencies calls in the county. While the average town fire department in North Carolina has a cost of $90.89, Garner’s cost floats around $69.

In 2008, Wake County fire tax was lowered to 8 cents, which Poole has said is too low to provide the same quality of service residents have come to appreciate.

“It’s a struggle,” he said, although relations have improved with the county and the town.

In Sept., Poole proposed a “motor vehicle accident cost recovery” program to the council, a move that is currently being considered by county committees. The program, which could generate tens of thousands of dollars annually, would seek reimbursement after a crash from the insurance company of the party at fault.

Poole would like to see finances improve so that the firefighters can receive a specialized physical examination recommended for their job that includes a stress test. Currently, his employees only receive a normal physical, but Poole is pushing for the expensive but necessary test.

Overall, Poole says that he is proud of the department. Management letters that report errors are common in fire department audits.

“We haven’t had one in four years,” he said.

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