Union County

Fire debate dominates Weddington budget talks

Weddington’s dispute with the Providence Volunteer Fire Department prompted Finance Officer Leslie Gaylord to recommend a $45,000 budget amendment to provide a buffer for potential legal fees.

The town council approved the budget amendment at its June 8 meeting – just minutes after accepting its original $1.86 million budget, bringing the new budget total to $1.91 million. Ad valorem taxes would remain at 5.2 cents per $100 valuation, Gaylord said.

The budget discussion took up relatively little time compared to comments from residents and council members about the town’s severed contract with Providence VFD. The fire department’s attorney, Bob Henderson, filed a lawsuit against the town June 4 for prematurely canceling a fire service agreement.

The 10-year contract between Weddington and Providence VFD carries a $750,000 penalty if the town ends the contract early without cause. Mayor Bill Deter has said the department is not financially stable and that justifies ending the contract. Henderson, Providence VFD members and Council Member Pamela Hadley dispute the mayor’s conclusions.

The town has signed a fire service agreement with Wesley Chapel Volunteer Fire Department, effective July 29. It is still not clear what will happen to the fire station on Hemby Road, currently used by PVFD but owned by the town.

A dozen residents stood up during the meeting’s public comment session to express their disappointment with the mayor and council for ending the fire service agreement – and to ask the town to reverse its decision. Many comments elicited loud applause from the audience, some of whom stood outside open doors to hear what was being said in the overcrowded room.

Although Deter was not the only board member to vote for breaking the contract, most of the comments were directed at him. One speaker, Ken Moore, insisted that the mayor look at him while he spoke instead of “doodling.”

Judy Johnston, a Weddington resident who serves as secretary for the Providence VFD board, presented the board with 815 signatures from an online petition and another 166 signatures on paper petitions, asking the council to reverse its decision.

“This is almost the equivalent of the votes you received in the election,” she said. “It triples the number of supporters contesting the water tower, and it surpasses the margin which elected you into office. This number continues to grow...”

“Step away from your personal agenda, stop fabricating numbers to suit your agenda, and stop twisting the truth,” Johnston said. “You can still stop the train, put it in reverse and save the taxpayers thousands of dollars.”

Later in the meeting, during an agenda item labeled “fire service update,” Hadley and Deter read prepared statements. Hadley raised several questions, including the impact on insurance ratings for town residents, the quality of used equipment recently purchased by Wesley Chapel Fire Department for the Hemby Road station and the status of the Hemby Road station’s building and land.

“Coupled with the legal costs of defending a lawsuit and possible payment of a $750K penalty, is the $923,000 we have invested in Hemby Road,” she said. “All the costs associated with the decision made in April to change our fire service model is now closing in on $2 million. I would like to encourage this council to receive community buy-in and support before making a decision about leasing, selling or donating the building on Hemby Road.”

In his statement, Deter addressed multiple points that have been argued in flyers and in the media. He disputed arguments that the change would cause a decline in staffing or equipment.

He held up a flyer and said, “These flyers talk about PVFD being debt free: PVFD is debt free because the town has been incurring all of their debt. From 2007-2012, the town subsidized PVFD by almost $1 million over and above the fire fee/taxes paid by residents.

“When the fire service district was created the town still subsidized PVFD in the first year by over a quarter million dollars,” he said. “This ongoing funding is a burden that is not sustainable by the town. The council must be concerned with all town residents not just one group as we address public safety and the financial issues and viability of PVFD.”

The last item on the agenda was a closed session to talk with town attorney Anthony Fox. Halfway through the meeting, Deter asked to add an agenda item to form a litigation committee to provide direction to Fox in response to the PVFD lawsuit. After the item was added, the council voted to put Deter and council member Barbara Harrison on the committee. Fox said all council members would be permitted to participate in that meeting’s closed session.

Jane Duckwall is a freelance writer. Have a story idea for Jane? Email her at jbduckwall@gmail.com.