BY DEBBIE PAGE
After a two-hour discussion at a special meeting on Tuesday, the Troutman Town Council voted to include the town in the proposed Iredell County Fire Service District if it is approved by the Iredell County Board of Commissioners in January.
Though they expressed several reservations about the change during the meeting with county officials and Troutman Fire and Rescue Chief Wesley Morris, council members approved a resolution in support of the plan under the pressure of a November 30 deadline set by the county.
Council members also reached a consensus about a desire to investigate what is required to create a municipal fire department as soon as a viable plan and funding could be put in place.
County Manager Beth Jones told the council that a decision had to be made in time to get letters out to affected property owners in early December notifying them of the commissioners’ January public hearing on the matter.
To move the plan forward during the next fiscal year, commissioners must vote on the county fire service district in January to have time to make tax bill changes and software changes in the county tax office, according to Jones.
Mayor Teross Young and several council members made clear their decision had nothing to do with the performance of the Troutman Fire & Recue Department, which was described as a “model district” that others sought to emulate.
Councilman Paul Bryant praised the department for doing a great job of managing a high volume of day-to-day activity. Fire district members currently pay a fire tax of 7.5 cents per $100 assessed property value. Under the countywide fire district, the rate will increase to 9 cents.
The current fire taxes would all be set to 0, leaving a 1.5 cent increase for Troutman Barringer & Fallstown (B&F) Fire District property owners if commissioners pass the planned county fire district.
In his presentation to the Troutman council, Kent Greene, director of Iredell County Fire Services and Emergency Management, noted that volunteerism is rapidly declining, leaving staffing shortages in many county fire departments.
The county’s goal in creating a countywide fire district, which excludes the municipal areas of Statesville and Mooresville, was to make fire funding “stable,” Greene said. He stressed that “there is no intent to diminish funding.”
“No one will go backwards,” Greene assured the council.
All departments would get annual increases in funding, he explained, because “it’s not getting cheaper to provide fire service.” He also told council members that “we know service has to grow with development.”
Greene also pointed out that by leaving the Troutman B&F Fire Service District in place, the council could later ask county commissioners for an increase in the tax rate for just that district if rapid growth in the area outpaces funding, providing the town a revenue “cushion.”
However, Greene believes the growth should be self-funding, making a fire tax increase likely unnecessary. His projections have the countywide tax holding at 9 cents per $100 valuation through 2030.
The county will not in any way change the Troutman department’s operations, only the tax method through which it is funded.
The county will create three different funds to operate departments participating in the plan, including one to fund replacing and maintaining apparatus, one for buying new equipment, and one for upgrading departmental communication to the VIPER system.
Under the new structure, Greene will make expenditure recommendations for each department — after getting input for each’s needs — to the county commissioners. He plans to create a subcommittee to look at standardizing some equipment to get better deals through bulk purchases.
Fire Chief Morris opposed the change to a countywide district, expressing concerns about getting enough funding for his growing district. The Troutman B&F district is the third busiest in the county, eclipsed only by Statesville and Mooresville municipal departments.
Noting that this district is unique because it serves both county and city residents and businesses, Morris said his rapidly growing service area means more structures, people, and traffic and more incidents requiring medical, fire, and rescue services.
A time-based replacement schedule would not serve the interests of the Troutman area best, Morris said, pointing out that his busy department will put much more wear and tear on equipment in that time frame than a more rural department with a smaller call volume.
In response to a question by Councilman Paul Henkel, Greene said that if the council chose to stay independent, the bulk of the department’s revenue ($1.8 million) would be lost because county commissioners indicated that the county areas of the Troutman B&F Fire District would be put into its fire district, leaving TF&R only $397,000 in annual tax revenue collected from town residents.
Town Attorney Gary Thomas said that in effect, if the council did not join the new district, “you would be an island.”
Interim Town Manager Jim Freeman and Finance Director Steve Shealy presented three options to council: join the county district, start a municipal fire department, or help fund TF&R. The latter two options would put a financial strain on the town, Shealy noted.
Freeman advised the council to join the county district for now but to work on a game plan to create a municipal fire department, which he believes will be necessary in the coming years.
“This is a serious decision. Be careful of voting on a gut reaction.”
Henkel agreed, fearing the loss of the county areas of the Troutman fire service district. “We need to do this as a breathing room to plan for a municipal department. We need to do our due diligence and the right thing because we don’t want this to bite us or our successors in the posterior,” he said.
Councilwoman Jan Huffman made the motion to approve the resolution supporting Troutman’s inclusion in the county fire district, which Henkel seconded. The motion passed 4-0. (Councilwoman Judy Jablonski was absent).
After the vote, the mayor urged all council members to get more involved on this issue and talk to county commissioners in a positive way to ensure the best fire service for Troutman and the surrounding areas.