County: Newton compensation equal to other districts

While Newton leaders say they are not compensated for providing emergency medical response to the rural fire district Newton Fire Department serves, county officials say that is not true. In addition, county leaders say Newton receives the same funding as other departments in the county — and those departments provide medical first response.

Although Catawba County government stopped providing $2,400 as part of mutual aid agreements with the county's fire departments, rural fire taxes still pay for those services, according to Lee Worsley, the county's assistant manager. In fact, after the county's budget for 2011-12 was adopted in June, those rural fire taxes provide $9,867 more for Newton Fire Department than it received the previous year.

"The $2,400 has been made up through the tax rate within the rural district," he said, adding he was aware of the city's request for a 2-cent increase over the 7-cent per $100 valuation tax rate. "The recommendation to the commissioners was that the increase not be approved for a few reasons."

Part of the reason was related to economic conditions in the county, he said.

"First, they share, with a couple of districts, the highest tax rate in the county, and they provide a very good service to the rural residents," Worsley said. "Their response rates are outstanding, and they provide the service that is needed at the rate they have."

Worsley said the city's explanation for fire tax increase was for the purchase of another water tanker and converting part-time to full-time personnel.

"With these tough economic times, we just didn't see enough to justify an increase," he said.

Newton originally budgeted the purchase a new fire tanker in its budget, but when its request for a 2-cent rural fire tax increase was denied, the city removed that equipment from its budget.

Worsley said that apart from removing the $2,400 from the mutual aid contract proposed to Newton and other county fire departments, the agreement has not otherwise changed. He said that since Newton hasn't offered an official response to the proposed contract, he couldn't comment on the city's inclination toward ceasing mutual aid for medical emergencies.

He did say, however, that other fire departments in the county deliver medical first response without receiving any reimbursement beyond the fire tax funds.

"The city of Hickory provides medical first response in the city and its rural district, and it is not reimbursed by the county," he said. "St. Stephens (fire department) provides medical first response ... they both pay for it with the fire tax they receive."

Fire taxes levied in the Hickory and St. Stephens rural fire districts is equal to Newton's rural fire district tax — 7 cents per $100 valuation, he said. Sherrills Ford-Terrell also provides medical response in its fire district with the rural district fire tax rate set at 7 cents. Bandys Fire Department provides medical first response with a 6-cent per $100 valuation rural fire tax rate. Conover does not provide medical first response, but the department sometimes responds on certain calls. In its service are, the fire tax rate is 7 cents.

During Newton City Council's Tuesday night meeting, Newton Mayor Robert Mullinax said the city considered providing medical first response services after a county request, but sought compensation to do so.

Newton Fire Chief Kevin Yoder said the city proposed a cost of $183,000 per year to become the primary medical first response service provider in the city and the rural fire district.

"If Newton decides to provide that (medical first response) service, as they are doing in Hickory and St. Stephens, we told them that we need to be consistent with what we are already doing in other fire districts," Worsley said, "and that is equal to or less than Newton is already receiving."

"We appreciate the service Newton provides. It is outstanding and the relationship has been very good," Worsley continued. "From the beginning when we stopped the $2,400 mutual aide payments, our intent was to keep the fire district whole, and I believe we made good on that effort. They got additional money, and the agreement is basically the same agreement as what it has been in years past. There is no desire for a change in the relationship on the county's part. It has been a good one for a long time."