County Considers Replacing Volunteers With Paid Firefighters

In March, fire chiefs from 18 county departments gathered at a public safety subcommittee meeting to talk about long-range planning for fire service. Several chiefs said they did not want the county to take over their departments.

by John Marks, The Herald (Rock Hill, S.C.) / May 9, 2019

(TNS) — There’s some concern York County may be heading toward countywide paid fire service and away from volunteer firefighters.

York County Council members say their recent votes shouldn’t be the cause of it.

“Everybody in this room should support volunteers,” Chairman Michael Johnson said when Council met May 6. “The fact that you would voluntarily show up, get all the training and then run into a burning building — you have my support. Day one and every day.”

Council voted Monday to dissolve the Riverview department fire tax board and put district funding decisions under county control. A separate decision set up job descriptions and pay ranges for new county firefighters. Those decisions still need two more county council votes to become final.

Several council members said they spoke with area fire departments who were concerned about a county takeover.

“We’ve stated all along, if you want to be a fire board in your tax district that’s fine,” said Councilman Robert Winkler. “If you don’t want to be, that’s fine. It’s up to you.”

In March, fire chiefs from 18 county departments gathered at a public safety subcommittee meeting to talk about long-range planning for fire service. Several chiefs said they did not want the county to take over their departments.

Riverview Chief Lance Couch, however, said he wants his paid firefighters, like in several districts funded by a special tax charged within fire service boundaries, to become county employees. Couch said it will reduce unnecessary burden on him and the citizen tax board.

“The thought process is that we don’t need to be in the HR business,” Couch told county leaders in March. “We’re firefighters. That’s what we do. We’re good at that. We’re not good at HR.”

The decision, he said, is about getting and keeping the best firefighters he can through better benefits, health insurance, retirement and related matters the county can offer on a larger scale.

Not everyone agrees, even within Riverview. Sam Lesslie said in his 45 years as volunteer chief there he had no issue working with the tax board. As a taxpayer now, he has concerns falling under the county.

“We do not want to see the tax district board dismantled, because that’s where we’re paying our money in to operate Riverview Fire Department,” Lesslie said.

He said there are people within his district willing and able to run the department.

“If the tax district board that we have now does not have the time or capability to operate, then instead of demolishing the board, let them resign and let’s put on some people from the community that has the time, that will get out here and work,” Lesslie said.

Riverview serves an area from near Cherry Park in Rock Hill into unincorporated areas of Fort Mill and Tega Cay. With new homes and businesses moving in, Riverview started spending from its tax district on paid firefighters to supplement its volunteer base.

“Whether you agree with paid firefighters or not, they are adding them,” said Johnson, whose council district includes much of the Riverview service area. “They have to. It is a fast-growing area.”

At the same time, Riverview is shrinking with encroachment from municipal, paid departments.

“We are getting annexed daily,” Lesslie said. “We’re getting eaten up by Tega Cay, Fort Mill and Rock Hill. So down the road, we’re not going to have the revenue, the big businesses that we had before. So all the money is going to have to come from us poor taxpayers.”

Lesslie sees a move to county control as extreme for Riverview and doesn’t want the area saddled with paid positions when revenue sources can be annexed into municipalities.

“We do not want to see the county take over the paid fire system,” he said. “Riverview is not big enough to have a paid fire chief. We have had paid firemen for years. It’s not that big a problem.”

Johnson said if the fire department believes the county can help, he is obliged to offer it.

“They are not in the HR business,” he said. “They are not in the insurance business. They are not in the benefits business. The county is, and the county can provide that help to them.”

A vote, or a step?

Councilman Joel Hamilton, like several others, said he is concerned with the Riverview’s request for what it could signal countywide.

“It’s somewhat difficult to consider this decision outside of the context of the larger discussion we’re having regarding moving to paid fire departments,” Hamilton said.

The county recently completed a 10-year fire study. The study found more firefighters will be needed as growth continues. County manager Bill Shanahan said like other areas nationally, getting and keeping volunteers is a struggle because of the extensive training requirements and other factors. More paid staff is an option, whether offering per-response payment to volunteers, supplementing volunteer departments with more paid staff or going all paid.

County leaders say full paid county service could come, but likely not soon.

“Part of the big shock wave is it’s out there that, eventually we’ll get to a county paid fire service,” said Councilman William “Bump” Roddey. “And some of the concerns, genuine concern, was ‘is staff doing this to start transitioning early to a paid firefighter situation?’”

Roddey doesn’t believe so.

“This plan of everyone transitioning to county paid staff is probably a lot further out,” he said.

Councilwoman Allison Love isn’t so sure. She serves Clover and Lake Wylie, much of it under the Bethel volunteer department. Love said she polled residents online and found 90 percent of respondents preferred to keep the special tax board voters approved in 2009.

“This is a step toward becoming a paid fire service,” Love said of the Riverview decision. “It’s a big step.”

She, too, says county control could add costs for taxpayers.

“What I don’t want it to do is affect the other fire departments who do not want to not have a board,” Love said. “That is my biggest concern. I am trying to look out for my fire department in Bethel, and I’m trying to look out for some of the other fire departments that may feel like sometimes the rug’s being pulled out from them.”

Council members have been consistent saying departments should be allowed to choose what setup they prefer.

“We made it clear to all the volunteer firemen we wanted to do this as a transitional way,” said Councilman Britt Blackwell. “Not say that and then just start pouncing on everybody.”

Council set a workshop May 8 to talk about budgeting, which includes fire service.

“We need to start having more meaningful discussions about, what does this really mean?” Councilwoman Christi Cox said. “And I think that’s the biggest question. There’s this paranoia right now.”

Johnson points to the Bethel department, which in 2017 had its tax board disbanded by Council amid conflict between the board and volunteer firefighters about hiring a chief. The situation “escalated with threats (by volunteers) to refuse to respond to emergency calls.” The district kept its volunteer chief setup overseeing its mix of volunteer and paid firefighters. The county staff took over financial decisions. A new tax board was eventually re-established.

In that situation, Johnson said, the county offered assistance.

“Certainly we’ve set a precedent of pulling a group in and letting them back out,” he said.

The Riverview decision, he said, is also about helping fire departments. Johnson would like to see fire departments get as many volunteers as possible.

“Those who can’t, should also have the opportunity to have paid ones,” he said.


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