BY MIKE FUHRMAN
Representatives of the Iredell County Chiefs Association (ICCA) met with county officials on Friday to discuss lingering issues surrounding the proposed service agreement between the county and the volunteer fire departments for the current fiscal year.
Board of Commissioners Chairman James Mallory and Iredell County Fire Services and Emergency Management Director Kent Greene represented the county during the meeting, and Cool Springs VFD Chief Andy Webster and Union Grove VFD Chief Nolan Shumaker represented the ICCA.
The meeting was held two weeks after the expiration of the previous contract. County officials had hoped all departments would sign the new service agreement by the end of July, but that appeared increasingly unlikely last week. Only two of the 19 departments had signed the agreement as of July 1.
Commissioners on Tuesday will consider a proposal to continue funding all departments — regardless of whether they have signed the service agreement — through the end of September, which would allow more time for possible revisions.
Webster, however, said over the weekend that he is optimistic that the issues separating the two sides can be resolved. Signing a one-year service agreement — instead of another three-year deal — would enable both sides to continue working to resolve long-term issues, he added.
“It is a partnership between us and the county. In every partnership sometimes you have hiccups,” he said. “We all want the same thing — to serve the citizens of this county with the best fire protection we can provide.”
That partnership has hit a rocky patch over the past couple of weeks.
While County Manager Beth Mull sought to dispel rumors that the county was attempting to defund the volunteer fire departments, Shumaker said the county’s budget ordinance for fiscal year 2022-2023 and actions by the county in the past couple of months indicated otherwise.
“This is not rumor,” the Union Grove chief said in an interview. “We’re dealing with fact.”
The volunteer fire departments in Iredell County are largely funded by the 9 cent all-county property fire tax levied by county commissioners. The approved county budget for 2022-2023 includes more than $14 million in funding for fire protection services.
The county’s budget ordinance for 2022-2023 states that any volunteer fire department that does not sign the service agreement will not receive funding from the county. Greene stressed that point in a July 1 email that was sent to the fire chiefs and obtained by Iredell Free News.
Another chief, who declined to speak with Iredell Free News, was told by Greene that his department would not get funding for a new piece of equipment until that department had signed the service agreement, Shumaker said.
As a group, the fire chiefs were caught off guard by the county’s insistence that the volunteer departments sign an amended contract this year, Shumaker and Webster said. The chiefs shared a belief that the existing contract would be in force until the end of the 2022-2023 fiscal year.
The county did have the right to amend the agreement with proper notice, which Webster conceded had been done, although the chiefs were not provided the new contract until around May 6.
The major sticking point in the discussions, Shumaker and Webster said independently, is that county officials were seeking guarantees from each department related to each department’s response rate to calls for service.
The county initially wanted a “guarantee” that each department would respond to 95 percent of its calls, but the county would not commit to increased levels of funding for the fire departments, the chiefs said.
The departments rely heavily on volunteers, and without increasing the number of paid firefighters, it is impossible to make that type of guarantee, they explained.
“Volunteers are available at their leisure,” Shumaker explained. “I cannot tell them when to respond and when not to respond.
“If all my guys get together and decide they want to go fishing, there’s nothing I can say,” he added.
In response to the chiefs’ concerns, county officials have agreed to set a “target” that each department respond to 90 percent of the calls for service in their district. All departments hit that target between January 1 and June 30 of this year, according to county data.
Under the latest proposal, departments that responded to 95 percent or more of their calls for service would receive some type of financial incentive, the chiefs said. The county did not commit to a funding amount for the incentives, they said.
While Webster and Nolan represented the ICCA at the meeting with county officials, the board of directors for each volunteer department is responsible for approving and signing the contract with the county.