Caldwell County to shift funding for fire, rescue

Change intended to help poorer districts
Apr. 04, 2013 @ 07:46 AM

Caldwell County officials want to change how they distribute money for fire and rescue services to help departments with limited resources, but at least some of the local fire and rescue officials are wary of the change.

The plan for the so-called rescue readiness fund, discussed by Commissioner Chris Barlowe at a meeting of the Caldwell County Board of Commissioners on Monday, would affect the use of nearly $450,000 a year generated from a countywide rescue service tax. Barlowe said he has been working on the plan since October, including seeking approval from fire and rescue chiefs across the county. The county commissioners are expected to vote on the plan later this year.

As part of the plan, the county would extend by one year its existing five-year agreement to help pay debt owed by the Hudson Fire Department and Lovelady Rescue Squad in Granite Falls, both of which have relied on such payments to offset interest on loans for upgrades to fire and rescue equipment over the years. That would maintain those debt payments, which total about $44,000 a year for Hudson and $24,000 for Lovelady, for the next two fiscal years, but after that there would not be specific allocations by the county for the agencies' debt payments.

The change in funding is intended to stabilize the financial footing of departments in fire districts that have low property tax bases, county financial officer Tony Helton said, and “bring every fire department up to the level that they can extricate people from vehicles in a crash.”

The biggest financial gain would be seen by the Yadkin Valley Fire Department, which covers nearly 50 square miles in a rural, unincorporated part of the county with two fire trucks and an emergency vehicle that also is used to fight wildfires. The department, which received about $8,000 this year, would receive $17,500 for fire and other rescue equipment next fiscal year, according to the plan.

The Lovelady Rescue Squad, which largely covers unincorporated parts of the county, currently gets the largest amount from the fund, $115,000. Under the proposal, Lovelady would get $109,000.

Though the amount of the cut is relatively small, Lovelady is, like other fire and rescue departments, “trying to survive” in tough times, Chief Keith Davenport said. In recent years it has sought to improve its rescue efforts in towns across the county, including Grace Chapel, Little River and Rhodiss.

“It’s hard to set a budget when you don’t know what you’re going to get from year to year,” he said. “Times are tough all the way around.”

Davenport was unsure how much debt Lovelady might still face in two years, when the county would stop making a specific annual allocation for the rescue squad's debt.

Hudson Fire Chief Tommy Courtner worried that the end of the debt payments could put his department in a precarious situation, although under the proposed plan Hudson would receive about $75,500 next year, up from $59,000 this year.

“If (the county doesn’t) settle the debt,” warned Courtner, whose department now is working on a five-year contingency plan to try to stabilize its financial footing, “it’s going to cause hardship on our operation.” 

Despite the uncertainty, Courtner said his department “will do whatever is necessary to provide the services needed” by residents in and around Hudson.

The rescue readiness fund was created in the mid-1990s largely to help support three independent rescue services: an agency in Hudson that later merged into the town’s fire department; Lovelady Rescue, now the only remaining independent rescue service in the county; and one that ran in and around Lenoir but has since halted its services.

A committee created to manage the fund disbanded amid infighting among members unable to agree on how to distribute the money in 2009, after which the county agreed oversee the fund.