Smithfield and Selma are gearing up to study whether combining their fire departments would save the towns money and improve service.
The process is just beginning – with both sides still needing to officially signal their willingness to consider the idea. But those decisions are scheduled for this week, and if both town councils agree to proceed, the next step would have elected representatives from the towns come together for a meeting.
On the Smithfield side, the town council has created a service consolidation subcommittee made up of Councilmen Perry Harris, Travis Scott and Charles Williams, an assistant fire marshal with the Raleigh Fire Department. The committee’s first meeting March 16 included the mayor, town manager and fire chief in the discussion.
Councilman Harris took the lead, and while he acknowledged that the devil would be in the merger details, he urged the others to limit the scope of their conversation.
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“We’re not saying we want to do this; we’re saying we want to go forward and continue to go down that road to look at it,” he said.
And that’s what the subcommittee agreed to do. Next, it will ask the full council to vote on proceeding.
The idea of a combining fire departments presents several opportunities to save money, according to a draft feasibility study created by the Selma Fire Department.
For example, both departments have aging fleets of fire engines that will need replacing before long, and those purchases won’t be cheap. Smithfield and Selma each have ladder trucks made in 1991, and when it comes time to upgrade, a combined fire department could potentially get by with one new ladder truck instead of two.
Merging could also save money when it comes time to build new fire stations. Smithfield and Selma have one station each, located near the center of their fire districts. Both towns could benefit from adding a second station, and a combined department could build a single new location that fills gaps in both districts. Building one new station instead of two could save around $2 million.
And by having one fire chief instead of two, the merged department would eliminate one department-head salary and benefits. Together, the Smithfield and Selma fire chiefs now make $133,485 a year, plus benefits.
However, the idea of merger also raises a number of questions, such as:
▪ To whom would the new department be accountable? The two town councils could create a fire board that would oversee the department.
▪ How much funding would each town contribute? Smithfield has roughly twice the population and 3.5 times the land of Selma.
▪ Which town’s salary structure, benefits programs and other human resources policies would the department follow?
▪ Will volunteer firefighters support the plan?
The overriding question is whether the benefits would outweigh the costs, and Mayor John Lampe said his gut tells him the departments would be better combined than separate.
“In general, there should be some savings if we merge,” he said. “It’s got to be something.”
As a firefighting professional, Williams has the most experience of the councilmen on the subject. But rather than tout his own expertise, Williams made the case for hiring a third-party consultant to determine whether a merger made sense. The others agreed that, when the time came to make that decision, it would likely make sense to turn to a consultant.
Smithfield Fire Chief Patrick Harris had little time before the meeting to review the draft study put together by his counterparts in Selma. At first glance, Harris said he saw obvious benefits for Selma, but he could not immediately lay his finger on anything that Smithfield would gain from a merger.
“There’s really nothing that jumps out at me that says, ‘Hey, that’s going to be great,’” he said.
The towns are trying to move along in the process in a coordinated manner, Selma Mayor Cheryl Oliver said. The Selma Town Council will also take up the proposal for the first time this week and will vote on whether it wants to begin studying ways to combine fire services.
“It’s an idea that’s probably been bandied about for years and years by different folks,” Oliver said.
“So we’re just taking a look to say: How does the current leadership feel about it and where do we go from here?”