Four county fire departments fall short of requested funding

WHO YOU GONNA CALL: The Leicester Fire Department was one of eight county departments that did not request a tax rate increase this year. During their meeting on June 19, commissioners approved varying rates for the departments that did request an increase. Photo by Cindy Kunst
WHO YOU GONNA CALL: The Leicester Fire Department was one of eight county departments that did not request a tax rate increase this year. During their meeting on June 19, commissioners approved varying rates for the departments that did request an increase. Photo by Cindy Kunst

Part-time employees at Swannanoa Fire & Rescue make less per hour than many Buncombe County restaurant workers, says Swannanoa Fire Chief Anthony Penland.

The department’s part-timers make about $8.50 an hour, but thanks to a 1.1-cent boost in the district’s tax rate, their pay will jump to $10 an hour. Full-time employees will also see a bump, which will put them close to the state average.

“In order to make our guys … stay here, we knew we needed to do something,” Penland says.

Swannanoa was one of the 12 Buncombe County fire districts that requested rate increases in the county’s fiscal year 2019 budget, which was approved by the Board of Commissioners in a 5-2 vote on June 19.

Eleven districts requested at least a 1-cent tax rate increase. Commissioners approved an across-the-board 1-cent increase for those districts and a 0.8-cent increase for North Buncombe, which requested that amount. Then the commissioners examined the individual districts’ requests to identify those they believed deserved more than the 1-cent baseline.

Only Riceville, Woodfin, French Broad and Fairview received less than their total requested increases. Fairview requested the biggest boost in property tax money, 5.5 cents, but ended up with the standard 1-cent increase. Earlier in the process, the department had originally requested a 6.5-cent increase.

In January, commissioners heard the results of a pay study conducted by the N.C. Association of Fire Chiefs. The study said fire departments in Buncombe County pay substantially less than the statewide average. In order to put county fire departments in line with the state’s average pay, the study suggested 16 departments would need significant adjustments to their pay scales and three would need minor adjustments.

“I personally think that what firefighters do … there’s not enough money in the world that you could be adequately compensated,” said Commissioner Ellen Frost during the board meeting on June 19. “My only interest in raising any of these rates is for firefighter pay and, when needed, turnout gear. I realize we can’t hold anybody accountable to that, but any increases I would vote for is because I believe what your interests are too.”

Penland says all of the money generated from Swannanoa’s 1.1-cent increase, about $100,000, will go to salaries for employees. “We were losing people,” Penland says, “and we want people to know, ‘Hey, we appreciate you putting your life on the line.’”

During a May 8 budget work session, Penland told commissioners that the department had lost 25 firefighters since 2001 because the department could not offer a competitive wage.

Fairview Chief Scott Jones said his department is also dealing with retention issues because of pay, adding that many of his firefighters work multiple jobs and the department recently took out an equity line of credit to plug gaps in firefighter pay. He also said he hoped the boost in property tax revenue would help the department pay for updated vehicles, which are older than the National Fire Protection Association recommends.

“We don’t like tax increases at all,” Jones said, “but we also know that we’ve got a department that’s doing its best to provide the best service to the community, we’ve got trucks that are 30 years old, we’ve got salaries that are way under the state average, so we were looking at it from the standpoint that we’ve got to do something.”

Had it been approved, Fairview’s 5.5-cent increase would have yielded an additional $950,976 in revenue for the department. The 1 cent the department received will generate an estimated $172,905.

POTENTIAL EARNINGS: A graph prepared by the county before the passage of the FY 2019 budget shows how much money each fire department would have gained from their requested tax rate increases. Image courtesy of Buncombe County
POTENTIAL EARNINGS: A graph prepared by the county before the passage of the FY 2019 budget shows how much money each fire department would have gained from its requested tax rate increases. Image courtesy of Buncombe County

Commissioner and Fairview resident Mike Fryar says a 5.5-cent increase was excessive. “Too much money,” he says. “When you’re at $2 million and something, and that’s your budget, and you turn around and ask for basically another million dollars a year, that’s kind of out of hand.”

Jones says he was “thoroughly shocked” by the decision to give Fairview a 1-cent increase, calling it “a slap in the face.” A 1-cent increase, Jones says, will not cover the increases necessary to get department personnel up to the state average. “We were very open, transparent and honest with everything,” Jones says.

Frost disagrees. “We constantly asked what their [Fairview Fire Department’s] salaries were and we never got the information from them,” she says. “They never once represented that the raises were a priority for them nor did they answer our emails about what they were actually paid or what turnout gear they needed.”

Frost says she only learned Fairview’s actual salaries after the vote on June 19, and then via messages from individual firefighters. “It’s very unfortunate that the firefighters didn’t have more advocates on their board to be more transparent and let us know what they’re being paid,” she says.

Jones said he did receive a phone call from Frost prior to the vote but believes the commissioners didn’t engage enough with the fire department. He provided an email he sent to commissioners on June 18 detailing how the tax increase would be used: increasing salaries, rebuilding the department’s capital improvement and reserve fund, and hiring nine additional firefighters.

Even as chiefs seek to plug gaps in salaries, departments are also looking for ways to update old equipment. While Fairview’s department looks for ways to update its aging fleet, Swannanoa is in the process of replacing two 30-year-old vehicles. One engine, which is now gone, had a unfortunate habit of spontaneously shutting off.

“It would be sitting on a call and just shut down — for no reason,” Penland says. “Is that safe? Are you going to want to be the guy at the end of a nozzle with that thing fighting a fire?”

On July 5 at 6:46 p.m. Chief Scott Jones sent the following email responding to statements by Commissioner Ellen Frost in this article:

Mr. Floyd,

I just read the article released July 4 regarding the Buncombe County fire departments request to raise fire tax rates. You have Commissioner Frosts statement as:

Frost disagrees. “We constantly asked what their [Fairview Fire Department’s] salaries were and we never got the information from them,” she says. “They never once represented that the raises were a priority for them nor did they answer our emails about what they were actually paid or what turnout gear they needed.”

I have the following emails that were sent to the commissioners, including Commissioner Frost, requesting meetings or providing information to the commissioners regarding our fire tax rate increase request:

5-1-18- Letter sent to all commissioners inviting/requesting commissioners to meet with our board of directors to specifically discuss the FY 2018/2019 budget. Commissioner Frost as well as the other commissioners opened this email on 5-1-18 and as of 7/5/18, we have only received a response from Ellen Frost.

5-2-18- Commissioner Frost replied to the above email and asked how many Fairview firefighters were lacking two sets of gear and what is our starting pay and what method of raises do we provide.

5-3-18- Buncombe County Finance, at the request of the county manger, in preparation for meeting with commissioners, requested that we provide them with a specific breakout of what the requested additional revenue will be used for including our current starting pay and pay plan.

5-7-18- County Finance requests the specific breakout of what the requested additional revenue will be used for. The county manager asked County Finance for us to use their template that they provided instead of how we presented the breakout amounts on 5-3-18.

5-8-18- All fire departments in Buncombe County requesting an increase in their fire tax rates were required to meet and make a presentation to county commissioners.

5-16-18- Spoke with Commissioner Frost on the phone in regards to our request to increase our fire tax rate. I verbally answered her questions regarding our starting pay and our pay plan, as well as how many firefighters had two sets of turnout gear. We had submitted a letter to the Fairview community to be printed in the Fairview Town Crier, it was (and still is) located on our website. We made reference to our website via our Facebook page, and we printed this letter and handed them out to community members who asked for them as well as those who attended our board meeting. This letter was emailed to Commissioner Frost which explains in great detail what we were doing with the additional funding. Commissioner Frost opened this email on 5-16-18.

5-16-18- We emailed Commissioners Frost, Fryar, and Pressley an invitation to meet with our board of directors at the May 21 board meeting. We requested a meeting to discuss our FY 2018/2019 budget request. We asked that if any commissioner was unable to attend this monthly board meeting that we would be more than happy to schedule a meeting for an alternate date to fit their schedule. We received no response from any commissioner regarding this request.

6-18-18- All commissioners were emailed a letter to clarify the specific items that we were requesting an increase in our fire tax rate in order to provide additional funding. The number one priority was to increase our employees pay to meet the NC state average based upon the 2018 pay study completed by the NC Association of Firefighters. All of the Commissioners opened this email on 6-18-18.

6-19-18- All commissioners were emailed a letter from our board of directors in order to provide very clear and specific areas that we would be addressing with the fire tax rate increase. The first priority of this letter was to pay our staff a salary that is of the standard equal to that of the state average outlined in the 2018 study provided by the NC Association of Fire Chiefs. The commissioners opened this email early in the day of 6-19-18 prior to their vote on the budget.

Commissioner Frost stated: “We constantly asked what their [Fairview Fire Department’s] salaries were and we never got the information from them,” she says. “They never once represented that the raises were a priority for them nor did they answer our emails about what they were actually paid or what turnout gear they needed.”

As you can see by the multiple emails sent to and received by the commissioners, the commissioners were given the information that they requested.

6-19-18- All commissioners were emailed a request to meet with the board of directors to discuss their reasoning for not supporting at least our salary increases. As of today, 7-5-18, we have not received a reply from any commissioner regarding this request. All of the commissioners opened this email on 6-20-18

6-26-18- All commissioners were emailed a letter requesting a meeting to discuss issues that we are already facing due to the lack of support for at least the salary increases for our personnel. We have not received a reply to this email. All of the commissioners has received this email on 6-26-18.

6-26-18- Over 75 percent of our staff has emailed commissioners asking why they did not support to increase their salaries to the state average. As of 7-5-18, none of our employees have received a reply to their emails, even though the commissioners have opened their emails.

On Wednesday, March 28 our board of directors met with representatives from Buncombe County Finance in regards to our FY 2018/2019. The Fairview VFD Board of Directors requested this meeting. This meeting was to be as transparent as possible and allow them to provide the county manager and/or commissioners with any information regarding our budget, current financial position, as well as provide information regarding our rate increase request.

In your article Commissioner Frost states “she only learned Fairview’s actual salaries after the vote on June 19, and then via messages from individual firefighters.” “It’s very unfortunate that the firefighters didn’t have more advocates on their board to be more transparent and let us know what they’re being paid,” she says.

The Fairview VFD Board of Directors have been advocating for our personnel for months. When our board found out through the January 2018 pay study that our personnel salaries were drastically lower than the average statewide, this has been their priority. Our board of directors have been very transparent during this entire process and our personnel know how much that they advocate for our department and personnel.

Pages From Ord-Budget 6-19-18.PDF by David Floyd on Scribd

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About David Floyd
David Floyd is the Buncombe County reporter for the Mountain Xpress. He previously worked as a general-assignment reporter for the Johnson City Press. Email him at dfloyd@mountainx.com.

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4 thoughts on “Four county fire departments fall short of requested funding

  1. boatrocker

    Look at the bright side firefighters- when local citizenry finally rise up and riot
    against the local po-lice with their increased budget for beating down un-armed
    jaywalkers of color, you’ll have something to do for putting out
    the fires of righteous revolution.

    Maybe the neo-con alt right folks should call firefighters over-paid,
    a ‘drain on the system’, suggest they buy their own equipment and
    have too much ‘down time’ like teachers?

    Why have no alt right loonies suggested privatizing firefighters via vouchers yet?
    ‘Let the free market decide!’ I can hear it now.

  2. Jeff Payne

    Did the commissioners not get any information from the finance department on the FD budgets? The Finance Department had numerous meetings and received numerous documents concerning where and how the the money would be spent.

    Funny the commissioners indicate that they didn’t receive enough information; is this the same information trail that was used on gift cards, life insurance policies, retention pay and the equestrian center meals. Maybe the Mtn Exp should invoke the freedom of information act to see what was actually presented in these budget request to the County.

    Mr Fryar you say that FFDs request was to much, what in your mind do you think is an appropriate amount? Have you checked to see what the insurance premiums would be on your house and business properties if not for the hard work and effort by the FFD. How much time Mr Fryar and Mrs Frost have you actually spent visiting these departments and talking with the firefighters? I strongly suggest you make an appointment with your local fire department to see what really goes on instead of relying on hear say and rumors.

    • luther blissett

      “Funny the commissioners indicate that they didn’t receive enough information; is this the same information trail that was used on gift cards, life insurance policies, retention pay and the equestrian center meals.”

      You could also mention the information trail with… Skyland and Riceville fire departments. Transparency and clear lines of accountability have been an issue.

      https://www.citizen-times.com/story/news/local/2018/01/13/pay-transparency-buncombe-county-volunteer-fire-departments/951903001/

      FOIA away. I want to see fire departments funded and the staff well paid. Underfunding departments on the edges of the city will mean more mutual aid callouts from the city and other departments. That said, property taxes are a blunt instrument for one-off capital expenditures like replacing vehicles, where you’re talking $500,000 and upwards new (10-20 years in service) or low six-figures second-hand.

      Municipalities tend to have more funding options than small VFDs, and if the county ran fire service, new vehicles could be funded through bonds paid off over their operating lifespan. Within the current structure, I’d prefer an approach that separated salaries / operating expenses from capital improvements, evaluated the fleet across the entire county, and came up with a funding strategy that allowed FDs to replace vehicles and expensive equipment based upon need.

  3. Sherry Huffman

    So if you need them at 3 in the evening or 3 in th morning They are there for YOU! Yes they may have down time that seems awful too you ,but most of the time they are making up sleep deprivation,or planning a meal( which of you call 912 they will drop and come and risk their life for you) Think!!Any problem, somebody falls, fire , just an elderly lady that calls one a week cause her smoke alarms not working( she really wants to talk) that my friends of Leicester is our fire department!!! Caring, Brave,Somebody’s son, daughter, husband or father putting their life to save yous!!

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