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Seeking aid

August 3, 2011

For three straight years, Newton leaders have sought a 2-cent increase in the rural fire district tax levied on residents living within the 25 square miles the city's fire department serves.

And for three straight years, Catawba County officials have denied those requests.

Now, as the county seeks to renew a mutual aide fire protection agreement with fire departments countywide — an agreement that removes $2,400 those departments previously received — Newton leaders are the ones having reservations.

"If we approve this as it is ... we will be in a situation where the citizens of Newton are being forced to pay for the fire protection services of people in the rural fire district, and it is not right," said Council member Robert Abernethy Jr. "Then, when we get to budget time next year and talk about tax increases on the people of Newton, part of the reason is because they are subsidizing the people that don't live in the city."

During its Tuesday meeting, Newton City Council discussed a revised mutual aid agreement proposed to the county's fire departments. Under the current agreement, which is still under effect, Newton Fire Department provides fire protection to the Newton Rural Fire District, and provides mutual aide, when requested, for other emergencies, including medical calls.

Fire protection services delivered to residents in the rural fire district are funded through a 7-cent per $100 valuation fire tax levied on residents in that district, said Fire Chief Kevin Yoder. That tax yields about $350,000 for city coffers, he said.

On average, Newton responds to 800 emergency calls every year, and of those about 24 percent are in the rural fire district. However, not all of those emergency calls are for fires. The city's fire department, when requested, also provides mutual aide to Newton-Conover Rescue Squad and Catawba County EMS for automobile wrecks and medical emergencies.

When Catawba County proposed modifications to previous mutual aide agreements — including removal of a $2,400 stipend provided to the county's fire departments, some Newton Council members argued that the agreement stopped providing reimbursement for those calls, particularly medical emergencies.

That led Council member Wayne Dellinger to request modifications of his own. He sought to insure the city's fire department would only provide mutual aide for "non-medical emergencies."

"There comes a time when things need to be reviewed. Our budgets are tighter and some of them don't have money to save," he said. "If we provide additional services, we should be receiving additional funds."

Abernethy pointed to the denied requests for increasing rural fire district tax 2 cents per $100 valuation. That increase would provide an additional $100,000 in revenue for the fire department according to Yoder, who also confirmed Abernethy's suspicion that removing medical calls from Newton Fire Department's rural district responsibilities would "reduce expenses to the taxpayers that live within the city."

Dellinger clarified his opposition to mutual aid for medical calls in the rural fire district.

"I am trying to get rid of the possibility of us being put in a situation of buying an ambulance transport to take care of a medical situation," Dellinger explained. "That is what we pay county taxes for."

In fact, Newton Mayor Robert Mullinax said that within the past two years the city leaders have met with Catawba County officials and put a dollar amount on providing "non-fire emergency response" to citizens in the rural fire district.

"We were told quite candidly ... that they would expect us to provide these services, and they would not reimburse us," Mullinax said.

According to Yoder, the cost for Newton Fire Department providing medical first response to Newton citizens and those in the rural fire district amounts to about $183,000. Based on Newton Fire Department call volume to the rural fire district, the cost for medical emergency response to the area outside city limits totals about $24,000.

That cost analysis covers expenses related to personnel, fuel, equipment maintenance, medical supplies and trauma supplies, among other equipment, Yoder said. NFD has basic equipment for those types of emergency calls, but if required to respond to more medical emergencies inside and outside the district, more equipment and supplies would be needed, he said.

"There is a standard I think we are trying to set as to what we do and what we don't. We have been doing a lot of things we have not been compensated for," Mullinax said, adding that the county funds Newton-Conover Rescue Squad and Catawba County EMS to provide medical response in the city and its rural district.

As Newton considered the proposed contract, Council member Mary Bess Lawing wanted to approve the agreement as delivered, including mutual aide for all emergencies.

"I would hate for somebody to have an emergency and us be the only ones that could respond and us not respond," she said.

"Then the county should step up and pay for this," Abernethy retorted.
Dellinger agreed.

"There is not a person on this board that wants to put anybody in jeopardy, but there comes a time when you are not the provider," he said, "but if you are going to be the provider then you should be compensated."

Lawing argued that funding is "another issue we should address somewhere else with the county." She made a motion to approve the contract as proposed, but it ultimately died for lack of a second.

"We will revisit this contract," Mullinax said.

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