Contract dispute with volunteer fire departments brings real issue to light
BY MIKE FUHRMAN
The rift between Iredell County government officials and many of the volunteer fire departments that honorably serve the county’s nearly 200,000 residents every day has been resolved for now.
Some fire chiefs have felt pressured in recent weeks to sign new service agreements with the county by the end of July or risk losing county funding. County commissioners were prepared to extend that deadline until the end of September to allow additional time to work out issues in the contracts.
But, after further review, county officials determined Monday that the current service agreements between the county and the individual volunteer departments do not expire until July 1, 2023, easing the pressure on both sides.
The good news is that the chiefs and county officials have made a good faith effort during the past couple of weeks to address the issues causing the divide: (1) The county’s expectations for response rates; and (2) The county’s willingness to fund the personnel required to meet those expectations.
Like it or not, Iredell County is growing rapidly and can no longer be considered rural. The days of being able to rely on volunteer firefighters to respond to the vast majority of accidents, fires and many medical emergencies in a county this big are behind us.
The problem, as one of the chiefs explained to me last week, is you can’t force a volunteer to show up for anything. That’s why they are called “volunteers.”
Iredell County commissioners have long recognized this shift — and the need to better fund the fire service — and took a good step forward when they implemented a 9-cent countywide fire tax. As a result, the county can now more equitably fund fire protection in rural areas like Union Grove and Cool Springs. For those of you who don’t know, the county pays for construction of the fire stations, new equipment and insurance for all of the departments. The department’s receive county funding for operating expenses, which some of the departments use for paid firefighter positions.
It is abundantly clear that the $14 million generated annually by the fire tax is not sufficient to fund the increasing staffing needs at fire departments throughout the county.
While there will always be a need for volunteers, it is past time for every fire station in this county to be staffed with paid firefighters 24 hours a day, seven days a week. That was evident when one of the departments did not have volunteers to respond to a medical emergency that had a bad outcome.
One thing is for certain: This is not an issue that will be resolved by pitting the volunteer fire departments against the county administration.
County Manager Beth Mull or Director of Fire Services & Emergency Management Kent Greene cannot fix this issue. And most of the volunteer fire departments certainly do not have the resources to address this on their own.
There are only five people who have the power to address this. They are your elected county commissioners.
The Board of Commissioners should make resolving this issue its No. 1 priority in the coming year. If it means raising the countywide fire tax in 2023-2024, using money from the general fund or dipping into the tens of millions of dollars in the county’s fund balance, commissioners have an obligation to fund this critical public service.
Residents of the Harmony, Trinity, Wayside and all of the fire districts served by volunteer fire departments — like their friends in Statesville and Mooresville — deserve to have someone show up promptly 100 percent of the time when they call 911 for fire, crash and life-threatening medical emergency.
Mike Fuhrman is the editor of Iredell Free News.