BY KARISSA MILLER
The Iredell County Board of Commissioners voted unanimously Monday to allocate additional funding to ensure that volunteer fire departments throughout the county are staffed around the clock with paid firefighters.
During a special meeting, commissioners agreed to amend the all-county fire funding formula to increase funding for operations and reduce funding for capital projects.
The 2023-2024 budget includes $20.9 million for fire departments in the countywide fire district, County Manager Beth Mull explained.
However, commissioners asked Mull and staff to rework how the funds are allocated to the volunteer fire departments.
The new formula, which the board approved Monday, provides funds in the all-county fire department budget to help with a shortage of staff.
According to the county manager, the amendment to the formula allocates funds for the staffing at a rate of $18 an hour for two firefighters for 24 hours a day Monday-Friday and one person 24 hours a day on Saturday and Sunday.
“Staffing is a huge issue for our volunteer fire departments,” Mull said. “This way we are ensuring there is one main person at each station 24 hours a day.”
Due to the decline in volunteerism, departments must pay firefighters to ensure coverage. The original formula provided for a rate of $15 an hour, Mull said, but fire chiefs said that is not a competitive wage. So the county manager proposed increasing the rate to $18 an hour.
The funds necessary to increase firefighter pay were earmarked for capital needs or allocated for the “Reserve for Building” fund.
Board Chair Melissa Neader said the pay increase was necessary.
“I didn’t feel like we had what we needed. Thank you for staff for digging into this and coming up with options. Now I feel good about the plan. Everyone should have the same opportunity to provide the same staffing coverage,” she said.
Vice Chair Bert Connolly agreed.
“They assist EMS. They assist rescue squads. This should have been done years ago. This is a no-brainer. Public safety is a big thing we have to do. It’s the most important thing we do,” Connolly said.
But Commissioner Brad Stroud said the decision was a struggle for him.
“We’re robbing Peter to pay Paul,” he explained.
Finding the right balance was difficult because everyone’s staffing needs are legitimate, Stroud said, but that does not change the fact that West Iredell, Monticello and Central will all need new buildings in the future.
“The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few,” he said.