Disconnect Between Avery Commissioners, Local Fire Departments? Contract Discussions Continue Next Week

Published Friday, August 2, 2013 at 2:50 pm

By Jesse Wood

Aug. 2, 2013. The Avery County Board of Commissioners held a special meeting last night with the local fire chiefs and the Avery County Fire Commission to tackle funding concerns recently raised by the Avery County Firefighters Association. However, the meeting was brief – with light discussion – because the association wanted its attorney, who was unable to attend, present, according to Avery County Clerk Cindy Turbyfill.

Another meeting is scheduled for Tuesday, Aug. 6, at 6 p.m. to continue the discussion.

Title to fire trucks are at the heart of this issue.

Title to fire trucks are at the heart of this issue.

More than a week ago, Avery County Firefighters Association President Paul Buchanan sent out a press release voicing concerns that 11 of the 13 fire departments haven’t received its first monthly funding installment of the 2013-14 fiscal year, noting that the vast majority of Avery County could be without fire service in the near future.

Those 11 departments that haven’t received funding only signed six-month contracts. The two departments – Banner Elk and Seven Devils – that signed one-year contracts received funding.   

Buchanan said the 11 departments only signed six-month contracts because the Avery County Firefighters Association didn’t want to wait a full year to air concerns. Buchanan said the association is unhappy that the fire truck titles are now in the the Avery County Fire Commission’s name – and not in the name of the individual fire departments. Buchanan also noted that operation costs, such as fuel and heating are rising, yet the funding is staying level.

“Over the last three years, our budgets have been cut to the bone,” Buchanan said in the release. “There’s no way we can run on what they’re giving us.”

For the contracts to be valid, the county, the fire commission and the individual fire departments must all sign them. However, the county and the fire commission have not signed off on the six-month contracts, and the firefighters association noted that it fears the N.C. Fire Insurance Rating Bureau would deem the municipalities as having no fire service. If a municipality has no fire service, then fire insurance increases, and residents will be at higher risk and pay more annually. He also noted that residents and business valued at less than $100,000 would not be eligible for fire insurance coverage.

“Does the county realize what’s at stake?” Buchanan asked.

Avery County Commissioner Phyllis Forbes said the county hasn’t signed the six-month contracts because a county memorandum of understanding requires a one-year contract.

The issue of not having the fire truck titles in the individual fire departments’ name boils down to a “personal issue,” Buchanan told High Country Press, adding that the only physical thing the all-volunteer fire departments have to show for their public service efforts are its fire trucks and fire stations. 

“We’re already, by and large, running the fire departments free of charge with personnel, and now they want to take our equipment? We’re disgusted with that part of it,” Buchanan said.

Buchanan also said that the six-month contract was signed to ensure that fire protection would be in place for six months while the concerns are raised.

“We will continue to serve the community until either we run out of money,” Buchanan said, or the state steps in and tells us the local fire departments are not legally allowed to run calls because the contracts are void.

Commissioner Forbes disagreed with Buchanan’s statement about the local departments budgets being “cut to the bone.” She said the county has increased the fire tax from $650,000 in 2003 to more than $2 million currently.

“If there is a problem we need to address it. However, I know we have been more than generous to the fire departments. We also paid off all of the debts they had on the trucks,” Forbes said.

She also said people have mentioned that this all boils down to “pride.”

“I am really glad they have a lot of pride, and they should. But this whole thing is not about pride. It’s about serving the people of Avery County,” Forbes said. “They wouldn’t be volunteer firefighters if they weren’t concerned about the needs of Avery County. I wouldn’t be a county commissioner if I wasn’t concerned about the people of Avery County, and neither the men sitting on the fire commission. We are all here for the same reasons. We should not let pride invade that.”

Forbes added that all the firefighters do a “phenomenal job.”

“They do such a good job in the county, and I can’t say anything bad about the service,” Forbes said, adding that the county is lucky to have such dedicated volunteer firefighters.

However, she did add that perhaps a disconnect exists between the Avery County Board of Commissioners and the Avery County Firefighters Association, which represents the local departments. In the middle is the Avery County Fire Commission. Each year, the fire departments appear before the fire commission and turn in suggested budgets, and then the commission reviews the budgets and relays recommended budgets to the Avery County Board of Commission.   

“I believe we’ve been good to the fire departments. I am little surprised, but maybe something is going on that I am not aware of. We set up the fire commission to make sure everything was handled that needed to be handled. They look at the budget and basically handle the money, and then it comes to the commissioners for approval,” Forbes said. “If there is some problem of getting from point A to point B, from the fire association to the commissioners, we need to be aware of that. I don’t think there is, but there could be. It’s something I am not aware, but I am certainly willing to listen to what they have to say.”

Last week, whenever Buchanan sent out the press release, Avery County Fire Commission Chair Daryl Smith declined to comment on the matter.

At the brief meeting last night, Forbes said the commissioners requested the Avery County Firefighters Association to put their concerns on paper in advance to next Tuesday’s meeting.

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