Vance County, N.C., Might Pay to Connect VFDs with New 911 System

The money shuffle to the volunteer fire departments remains subject to formal approval, and County Commissioners Chairman Tommy Hester isn’t happy that the request comes only months after he and his colleagues raised Vance County, N.C.’s fire-district tax.

by Ray Gronberg, Henderson Daily Dispatch / November 7, 2018

(TNS) — Vance County, N.C., Commissioners intend to give volunteer fire departments and the local rescue squad nearly $13,000 to help them pay for the wireless service they need to work with the county’s new 911 dispatching software.

But the money shuffle remains subject to formal approval, and the county commissioners chairman, Tommy Hester, isn’t happy that the request comes only months after he and his colleagues raised Vance County’s fire-district tax.

“Here we are less than four months later coming back and asking for more money to go toward this,” Hester said before dissenting from a 6-1 vote that gave administrators the OK to begin setting up the subsidy. “I’m not real comfortable with this and it’s not the right way things should be done.”

The vice chairman of the commissioners, Archie Taylor, wasn’t a lot happier but went along with the majority. Like Hester, he felt the request merited a proper budget review.

“It’s not something [where] we should arbitrarily say we’ll take up the recurring cost,” Taylor said.

The funding request came last week from Doyle Carpunky, chief of the Vance County Rescue Squad, and surfaced on Oct. 31 toward the end of a meeting of the commissioners’ public safety committee.

The county’s equipped its 911 center with new dispatching software and its police, firefighters and medics are now in the midst of upgrading their own systems to work with it.

The upgrades include in-car laptops, which require a monthly data plan to communicate with the 911 center. Officials procured 27 units to spread out among eight volunteer fire departments and the rescue squad.

Per month, the connection costs $39.99 a unit, which collectively translates into a $12,957 annual expense.

County Manager Jordan McMillen said his government’s fiscal 2018-19 budget had money in it, from the outside-Henderson fire district tax, to cover the cost of the laptops. But there wasn’t an allocation in it for the monthly connection cost.

Carpunky told the public safety committee that the expense is an unplanned one as far as the volunteer firefighters are concerned.

“When it was originally discussed none of the volunteer departments knew anything about incurring another debt for these computers or anything,” he said.

The rescue squad chief floated the idea while he’s also pushing to break up the Vance County Fire Department and re-assign its staff to the volunteer departments to reinforce them.

The break-up plan, supported by the county Fire Commission, argues that volunteer fire departments are “more flexible” than governmental ones at handling the unexpected.

They’re “more suitable at expanding their services because of community support, less bureaucracy and the ability to fund new programs,” the written document for the break-up proposal argues.

Volunteer fire departments, and the rescue squad, are nonprofit corporations that Vance County hires via contract to provide coverage in specific communities. Despite being private, they rely heavily on government subsidies.

In 2016, the six volunteer departments that operate mainly within Vance County told the U.S. Internal Revenue Service they got by on anywhere from $102,829 up to $122,853 in revenue. They spent anywhere from a low of $60,212 to a high of $128,477.

Two other departments, Drewry and Epsom, cover portions of Vance County but work primarily in Warren and Franklin counties, respectively.

As Hester noted, the county raised the fire tax this summer, by 2 cents per $100 of assessed property value, and added $350,200 a year to its contributions to the volunteers, an increase of nearly 71 percent.

What they’re asking for now is “a small amount of money” to go with what they’ve already gotten, Hester said.

Contractually, the county doesn’t appear obligated to give the departments anything extra.

Each signed deals in 2016 that specify that their allocations will be “determined annually during the county’s budget process.” The only extra payment from the county they’re due is for auditing expenses.

The contracts also specify that the volunteer departments must “comply with the procedures for radio communications and established protocols for the dispatch of emergencies,” as the county 911 center defines them.

McMillen said the commissioners have to formalize the transfer for data service by voting on a budget amendment during one of their future meetings.

©2018 Henderson Daily Dispatch, N.C. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.