At a special meeting Feb. 25, Weddington Mayor Bill Deter told a packed crowd at town hall that the town needs to “get out of the fire business.”
The following night at another special meeting, the council voted 3-1 to do just that – despite strong opposition voiced Feb. 25 by residents and firefighters.
The resolution, opposed by council member Pamela Hadley, is intended to end the municipal fire services model adopted by the town in 2012. That decision gave Weddington the responsibility to oversee and fund fire protection services. It was paid for by a 0.022 increase in the town’s ad valorem tax.
The Feb. 26 resolution passed by the council will turn that responsibility over to the county – if the county accepts the conditions that are part of the four-page resolution. The conditions include keeping the town’s current fire-district lines for areas served by Providence Volunteer Fire Department, Stallings Volunteer Fire Department and Wesley Chapel Volunteer Fire Department. The largest area is served by Providence, which is in the Weddington town limits and was the primary focus of both meetings.
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The resolution also said Weddington would “seek the consolidation of the Providence Volunteer Fire Department and the Wesley Chapel Volunteer Fire Department or seek a unified, single fire department to serve the incorporated territory of the Town of Weddington.”
The council’s decision to make changes to its fire service agreements follows a $10,000 study of Providence that Weddington paid McGrath Consulting Group to conduct. The McGrath report, released in November, said the town’s 0.022 ad valorem tax for fire services has been insufficient. The report recommended consolidation of Providence and Wesley Chapel.
The town of Weddington has annual contracts with Wesley Chapel and Stallings, and a 10-year contract with Providence. That contract, enacted in 2014, penalizes Weddington $750,000 if the town terminates its contract with the fire department for reasons other than cause or mutual consent, according to documents on the town’s website.
Weddington also paid $922,868 in 2014 to purchase Providence’s headquarters on Hemby Road and make improvements. The fire department leases the building for $1 a year.
According to the McGrath report, Weddington’s service agreement with Providence was $579,825 for fiscal year 2014-2015. The town’s agreement with Wesley Chapel and Stallings was for $135,985 and $36,815, respectively, according to the report.
Weddington’s financial investment and the fire department’s long history and relationship with the town were at the core of many of the comments from residents who spoke Feb. 25.
Before the public comment period, Deter told the crowd that Providence is expected to have a $71,000 deficit next year. One reason for the deficit is that the territory Providence serves outside of Weddington – in Mecklenburg County and unincorporated Union County – is shrinking. He said consolidating the two departments would not cause the problems that some opponents predict.
The first audience member to speak was former Weddington Mayor Ed Howie, who recommended consolidating Providence and Wesley Chapel.
“I should have dealt with this a long time ago,” said Howie, who was elected mayor in 1994. But he and other supporters of consolidating were in the minority.
Former Councilman Werner Thomisser said Providence is the county’s “number one volunteer fire department, and you’re throwing them under the bus.”
He also said that the town is not going to save money by consolidating, and if you have to raise the fire tax, then you just have to raise the fire tax.
Kenny Schott, chief of the Providence Volunteer Fire Department, said the council had wasted $10,000 on the McGrath study, adding, “we’re underfunded.”
Both he and other commenters said the town was moving too fast on the decision.
“Why are we trying to move at lightning speed?” asked Joe Desimone, a Weddington resident.
Many firefighters were present at the meeting. One of them was Providence VFD Lt. Travis Manning, who asked the council, “What happens to my guys?”
That was one of many questions left unanswered.
Jane Duckwall is a freelance writer. Have a story idea for Jane? Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.