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County Budget Discussion Addresses Volunteer Fire Department Needs

(January 18, 2020) At a Budget Public Policy meeting of the Mecklenburg County Board of County Commissioners on January 14, county staff made several recommendations regarding volunteer fire departments located within the unincorporated areas of the Charlotte Extraterritorial Jurisdiction (ETJ).

The key recommendations for fiscal year 2021 (beginning July 1, 2020) were

  • Increase paid staff from two to three personnel per station.
  • Provide additional funding of $35,000 per station, $85,000 total, for capital needs and miscellaneous expenses,
  • Hold $150,000 in capital funds for a loan to purchase land for a future third station in Steele Creek until strategy is finalized in collaboration with the Charlotte Fire Department,
  • Continue discussions with the Charlotte Fire Department regarding the possible city takeover of fire services in the unincorporated Steele Creek area and other areas,
  • Adjust the Fire Protection Service District tax rate to meet the departmentsí needs. The current rate is 6.67 cents per $100 valuation. To meet the needs in the countyís recommendation, the rate would need to increase to 7.6 cents for fiscal year 2021.

County staff do not believe that the current funding model is sustainable over the long term. The county and fire departments need to work together to come up with long-term solutions for providing fire protection in the unincorporated areas of the Charlotte ETJ.

County staff have not expressed a need for a Fire Commission to work on budgeting, long range planning, and other issues for the unincorporated area of the Charlotte ETJ. Currently the fire chiefs operate as an informal Fire Commission, but the Steele Creek Residents Association believes that establishing a Fire Commission, made up of elected officials, county staff, and community representatives as well as the fire chiefs, should be a priority. The Residents Asociation suggests creating a Mecklenburg County Fire Commission using the Wake County Fire Commission model, which has been used successfully for about 20 years around the Raleigh area. See Wake County Fire Commission.

To view a video of the Budget Public Policy meeting, see Board of County Commissioners - 01/14/20.

To view the presentation slides by Ebenezer Gujjarlapudi, Land Use & Environmental Services Director, see Service Delivery Options Presentation.

In 2012, Mecklenburg County created the Charlotte Fire Protection Service District, which covers the unincorporated areas within the Charlotte ETJ and is served primarily by six volunteer fire departments and the City of Charlotte Fire Department. All property owners within the Fire Protection Service District pay a tax to the district, and the county allocates the revenue generated among the various departments. For fiscal year 2019 the rate was 8 cents per $100 valuation. For fiscal year 2020, to maintain revenue neutrality after revaluation, the rate was lowered to 6.67 cents. For 2020 the estimated revenue is $4,760,799, of which the two Steele Creek stations would receive $1,120,080.

For a more detailed map showing fire districts and stations countywide, click on the map above or here: Mecklenburg County VFD Boundaries.

The six departments are Carolina, Cooks, Long Creek, Robinson, Steele Creek (with two stations), and West Mecklenburg. The county contracts with the Charlotte Fire Department to provide fire protection service in the Charlotte Rural area. The Charlotte rural area previously was serviced by volunteer departments that have gone out of business. The volunteer fire departments are separate, not-for-profit entities that contract with the county to provide fire services. They are not county agencies.

The stations traditionally had been staffed by volunteers, but the departments cannot find enough volunteers anymore and are transitioning to a paid staff. In 2018 the county decided that every station would have two paid firefighters available for 24 hours, 7 days a week. In 2019, the Steele Creek department received an additional $100,000 for capital needs. For 2020, funding was increased to provide a minimum salary of $15 per hour, and each department received $50,000 per station for capital needs. (Steele Creek received $100,000 for its two stations.)

Because development and service needs in the service district have increased, the county and departments have agreed that there is a need for refinement in the funding model.

Last year the county made a commitment to the volunteer departments to evaluate the needs during fiscal year 2020 and make recommendations as part of the 2021 budget process, to explore collaborative/partnership opportunities with the Charlotte Fire Department, and to provide potential strategies for fiscal year 2022 and beyond.

The area covered by the Steele Creek Volunteer Fire Department has decreased over the years as Charlotte has annexed new development and the city fire department has taken over service. Up through 2011, the city had major annexations every two years, but annexations have practically come to a halt since the General Assembly changed the annexation laws in 2011 and 2012. Previously the city could involuntarily annex developed areas, but now property owners must voluntarily request annexation. Annexation generally now only occurs when developers request annexation of vacant land before it is subdivided and developed. Once individual property owners have purchased lots, voluntary annexation is unlikely.

The City of Charlotte opened Station 37 on South Tryon Street near Shopton Road West in 2007. This station is on the edge of the city limits. They opened Station 38 on Shopton Road West north of the Sanctuary in 2008. This station actually is outside the city limits. The city planned to have these stations service areas that they would annex in the future, but since involuntary annexations have stopped, these stations are not in the most efficient locations to serve Charlotte residents.

In 2009, Charlotte had plans to build a new station in the Youngblood Road/Palisades area once it was annexed. See Steele Creek to Get Two New Fire Stations...Eventually (October 4, 2009).

For many years after it was chartered in 1954, the Steele Creek Volunteer Fire Departmentís service area was primarily rural. Now, they service an area that is increasingly urbanized. The Steele Creek Volunteer Fire Department now needs to add a third station in the Youngblood Road/Palisades area and will need additional funding to provide a staff of 3 firefighters at the new station.

The county has acknowledged the need for a third station in Steele Creek but is also in discussions with the Charlotte Fire Department about them taking over service in unincorporated Steele Creek. City stations 37 and 38 could cover most of the area, but a new station in the Palisades would still be needed. One complication is that the Palisades area lacks fire hydrants, and fire responders would have to bring a tanker truck.

Through their discussions with the Charlotte Fire Department, county staff have identified two departments, Robinsion and Cooks, that could potentially close and transition to service by the city because city stations are located near the volunteer stations and can easily take over the volunteer department territories.

The county is not proposing that the city fire department take over service in the current unincorporated Steele Creek District in the near future, but it will continue to explore long-term possibilities and options.

The Charlotte budget includes expenditures of 6.36 cents per $100 valuation for fire services within Charlotte. The current reimbursement rate that the county pays for city fire services in the Charlotte Rural area is also 6.36 cents per $100 valuation, which is less than the rate needed to pay for volunteer fire department operations. (However, the city rate does not cover capital expenditures. Fully allocated, the Charlotte Fire Department rate is right at 7.0 cents.) In some volunteer districts, the tax rate does not generate enough revenue to support the needs of those departments. As a result, just over a third of the tax revenues collected within the Steele Creek Volunteer Fire District goes to subsidize other departments.

Another issue is the aging fire stations. In particular, Steele Creek Station #1 has a failing septic system that needs significant attention.

The county anticipates that a new station in the Palisades area could be operational by 2023.

County Commissioners believe the community should be more involved in the review process and have proposed having Town Hall meetings to share information about near- and long-term possibilities and options, to present information on the tax rate needed to meet the fire departmentsí needs, and to receive feedback. District 2 Commissioner Vilma Leake and District 6 Commissioner Susan Rodriguez-McDowell stated during the workshop that they would like to receive resident feedback at upcoming Town Hall meeting(s) yet to be announced.

The fire chiefs generally support the staff recommendation but would like to continue negotiation on several details.

The County Commissioners must decide how to proceed during the upcoming year by the end of May so that they can establish the tax rate by the beginning of the new fiscal year in July 2020.

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