County to cut mutual aid fire funding, despite needs

Catawba County plans to cut payments to its 14 fire departments next year, but county officials say its unclear why the funds are appropriated annually anyway.

The county will cut alarm payments for fire districts to provide interdepartmental mutual aid — funding that county manager Tom Lundy said has "no history" because it was set up 40 years ago.

"It's been around for years and has been in the budget, but there's no one still around who created it," Lundy said.

Lundy suspects the payments were originally appropriated to fire districts to help them "get their feet off the ground" after new departments were established.

The funding cut will eliminate a large chunk of fire department revenue. The city of Newton, for example, will lose about $2,400, which is comparable with other fire stations.

"The county commission and the county manager need to understand that for the services the city of Newton provides for the county outside our jurisdiction, we are spending Newton citizen taxpayer money to provide them with services, and they are not reciprocating," said Newton Mayor Robert Mullinax about the cut payments. "The provision of services for no funds is something the city of Newton cannot continue to do."

Mullinax said if the payments are cut, Newton's relationship with other fire departments may change.

"If they are not going to pay us, that is very annoying,” he said, adding the city “will not participate” in future mutual agreements with the county without that funding. “That is something we have with our neighbors who we have a good relationship with, and (the county) ought to rethink that."

But Lundy said that even if the mutual-aid payments are cut, cities like Newton will still make money and be in "better" financial shape.

"I recommended that Newton keep their 7 cents per $100 of valuation fire tax, which would earn them $11,517 next year," Lundy said. "So even without that $2,400 amount, they would still be netting about $9,117."

Newton Fire Chief Kevin Yoder said that "net increase" is not enough money to operate fluidly.

"Even if there is a net increase overall, that net increase still doesn't meet the needs we have every year," Yoder said. "An additional $9,000 of revenue is not going to pay for $40,000 debt service on a new (fire) tanker."

Yoder said the cut funds were used in his operational budget to pay for safety items, radio equipment and turn-out gear or fire department safety clothing. He added that the mutual-aid funding was part of a contractual agreement with the county "for a number of years," but said new contracts will eliminate the payments.

Some of the angst from Newton officials may stem from the county's denial of a 2 cent fire tax increase the city asked for the past three years. The desired increase would have bumped the fire tax from 7 cents to 9 cents per $100 of valuation.

"At the city of Newton, we have actually requested an increase for 2 cents on our rural fire tax, so we can replace a fire tanker that's about 25 years old and has significant suspension issues, transmission problems, engine problems, brake issues, electrical issues and leaking tank, pump and valves," Yoder said. "If we have an incident today that we need a supply of water for, that truck cannot respond."

The tanker also has an electrical problem with the "quick dump" that allows water to be easily used on the scene. When the truck leaves the station, the quick dump is triggered, and all the water is dumped before it gets to the scene, Yoder said.

Despite Newton's request, Lundy said he denied the fire tax increase because the county commissioners did not want a property tax increase.

"They may not be getting all the money they wanted, but in financial times like these, that's not always going to be possible," Lundy said.

Some fire departments are not opposed to the payment cuts.

"There’s a lot more tougher decisions being made out there than $2,400,” said Sherrills Ford Fire and Rescue Chief Keith Bost. “If all I’m losing is $2,400, and I don’t have to cut anybody, then I’m happy.”

Bost also said that the funds cut from each department may help prevent someone's job from being cut at the county level. Regardless of whether the payments are cut, Bost said his mutual-aid service will always persist.

“If my neighbor in a fire department needs help, all they have to do is call me," Bost said. "The $2,400 is not going to keep me from helping out someone. I’ll be darn to let someone take a chance on a call and let a fireman get killed.”

Lundy also feels that this payment cut should not affect interdepartmental service.

"None of this should affect the cooperation between cities in the county," Lundy said.

The Catawba County Board of Commissioners will meet in an all-day public session May 31 at the 1924 Courthouse while a public hearing and "wrap-up session" will take place June 2 at 7 p.m. at the same location. The commissioners plan to adopt a budget on June 6.

O-N-E Publisher Michael Willard also contributed to this story.