Volunteer fire chiefs petition Surry County commissioners

By Jeff Linville - jlinville@mtairynews.com
Skull Camp Fire Chief Ricky Casstevens, left, writes down some information for the county commissioners, including Dr. Gary Tilley, at Tuesday’s budget work session in Dobson. - Jeff Linville | The News

Part 1 of 2

DOBSON — Twelve different volunteer fire departments came before the county Board of Commissioners Tuesday, and 10 of them are seeking an increase in fire tax.

The White Plains and Jot-Um-Down fire chiefs said they weren’t looking for a tax increase, but simply showed up to answer any questions from the board.

Pilot Knob’s request is virtually the same, as the budget provided asked for just $4,300 more, a difference of about one-tenth of a penny on every $100 of valued property.

Mountain Park and Pine Ridge didn’t attend Tuesday’s work session. The budgets provided from each showed no increase from the current fiscal year, and in fact showed a slight decrease.

Mountain Park submitted a budget of $103,300, compared to the current $112,035. Pine Ridge listed $99,772 as a need, compared to $112,646 currently.

Central Surry’s submitted budget asked for the second-biggest jump of any department, but at the meeting, the representatives said they would make do with what they have.

“We’re having fun, said Chief Rodney Whitaker. While volunteerism is down across the state, he said, “We’re being very blessed right now. It’s up and down. It’s up right now.” He said membership has risen from 28 last year to 54 now.

That isn’t the trend. White Plains Chief Garth Badgett said that at one time his station had 22 First Responders, but now he is down to just eight; and the first-response rate is 69-70 percent of all calls.

Whitaker and Central treasurer Scotty Coe said they received a 0.7-cent tax increase last year to $163,515, and they would stick with it now.

However, the submitted budget asked for $226,035, which would require a tax hike from 6.8 cents to 9.4 cents per $100.

There has been some talk for a couple of years about the need for a pump truck to serve the south and west areas of the county, noted John Shelton, emergency services director. Central Surry would be a good place for a pumper.

If a fire truck is near a hydrant, the firefighters can tap into the line. If the fire happens out in a rural area, a pump truck brings lots of water to the fire, Shelton explained. Right now, the only two in the county are at Four Way and Franklin, and those departments had to fund their own trucks. Now they get called in to provide mutual aid for fires in other districts.

Originally this need is why the county commissioners were discussing the creation of a $50,000 fire grant, added Fire Marshal Doug Jones.

“It is an absolutely necessary piece of equipment,” said Shelton.

Without a fire grant and without jumping up the district’s tax rate 2.6 cents, the county does need to consider this issue at some point, Shelton suggested to the board.

With no change expected at this time for Central Surry, the two biggest jumps in tax rate requested would be for Shoals and Four Way.

The budget submitted from Shoals asked for $29,000 more from $81,650 in the current year. That would take a jump from 6.5 to 8.8 cents.

Chief Adrian Wall said the board of directors is seeking more than what he had suggested to them. He was hoping to get a quarter-share of one of those $50,000 fire grants, so that taxes could stay the same.

That $12,500 would be almost exactly one penny of tax rate, stated Sarah Bowen, county finance director.

Commissioner Larry Phillips said that the idea behind a fire grant is to assist when a sudden large expense comes up such as replacing air packs. It isn’t to aid in day-to-day expenses.

If Wall was seeking just $12,500 and not the full $29,000, then that would take a move from 6.5 cents to 7.5 cents per $100, the board discussed.

Four Way Chief Bruce Crigger and Frank Shelton, president of the board, presented a budget that jumped $45,000 from almost $170,000 to $215,000.

According to Bowen, this would require a tax hike from 10.2 cent to 12.9 cents.

Crigger said the district had a lot more money until Mount Airy annexed the Cross Creek area and took half of the tax base. He said this increase still wouldn’t put the department back to where it once was.

Would the public react poorly to a 2.7-cent jump, the board asked.

“I haven’t heard a word from dissenters,” said Crigger. And, he added, they won’t mind when the homeowner’s insurance goes down because of a lower ISO.

This will be possible because of several changes including using this extra money to afford paid part-time workers, he said.

The volunteer roster has “29 names on a wall, but I have 10 firemen,” he said.

The department managed to run all its fire calls last year, but there were probably 100 medical calls that went unanswered because there was no one to run them.

The board asked how many medical calls the district received last year, and Crigger estimated around 500, but half of those were probably mutual-aid calls to help in someone else’s district.

Phillips said he would like to see a county-wide discussion of what a part-time worker should make at a volunteer fire department. He said he would like it to be consistent so rates don’t vary much between districts.

Over the rest of the meetings, the board would learn that the local fire chiefs association already had a discussion on this matter and had agreed that a rate plan should be put in place. Districts are starting part-time firefighters at $10 per hour, with raises after six months or a year, with a maximum cap of $15 per hour.

Franklin Chief Johnny Hiatt said his department is thinking of capping the rate at $11.

All the departments who have started a paid program said they brought in outside help, except for Skull Camp.

Skull Camp Chief Ricky Casstevens said he and his board of directors spent a lot of time discussing personnel with an outside management consultant.

Rather than hire an employee, the department now provides incentives to those who work a six-hour shift during the week.

They aren’t paid by the hour, he said. They aren’t employees or independent contractors. The incentive program allows Skull Camp to provide a $60 payment to someone who helps out. This averages out to $10 an hour.

Is paying one guy going to cause problems with other volunteers not getting paid, asked Commissioner Van Tucker.

Casstevens said he allows folks to sign up for a shift and keeps it spread out so everyone gets a chance for reimbursement if they want it, so it hasn’t been a problem.

As for funding, the chief said Skull Camp sought 2 cents last year and got 0.7. This year he is back seeking 1.5. Not only is he wanting to increase the incentive program to seven days a week, he said the department is in the process of acquiring land for a future third station.

Skull Camp covers a wide area of the northwest corner of the county, from the state line to Devotion, noted board member Marcus Draughn. Some of these homes, including the historic Edwards-Franklin House, are so far away from a station that they are rated as if they have no local fire department at all.

There is $19.1 million in homes and buildings that aren’t within five miles of a station, said Casstevens. There is more than $12 million in tax base that has an ISO rating of 9 and more than $6 million with an ISO of 10.

A third station would give these folks a rating of 7, which would amount to $130 to $150 savings for say a $100,000 home, he said.

The community is asking for this fire protection, he said.

And this would put medical care closer to folks as well, added, Draughn.

Adding a new station will also help the ISO of South Surry.

Chief Tony Tilley and assistant chief/treasurer Donald Joyner provided a drawing of a new site on U.S. 601, about a mile and a half south of N.C. 268, next door to Carolina Carports.

Instead of two bays, the group decided to go with three, thinking ahead to EMS needs, Tilley explained. He had spoken to John Shelton about one day getting a quick-response vehicle for the south end of the county. If so, the new station could have an extra bay and space for personnel in the station house.

Shelton told the board that right now the QRV is located in the town of Dobson, but it really would make more sense to have the unit more out in the rural area.

Right now the ISO rating is 9, but with a second station, most folks likely would be eligible for a 6 rating for their insurance, said Tony Tilley.

The submitted budget called for a jump from 7.2 cent to 9.8 cents, but Tilley said he thinks they could get by with less. Considering the county allowed 0.7 cents last year, he proposed 1.5 cents this year instead of the 2.6 cents on the budget plan.

As South Surry has been a leader in using paid part-time help, the board asked how that has been going.

Tilley said that the department has run 198 calls since Dec. 1. Of those, 27 percent fell in the time when the paid personnel are on duty, so it is iffy on whether a volunteer could have made it because of day jobs.

This is Part I of a two-part story on local fire departments. See a future edition of The News for more coverage.

Skull Camp Fire Chief Ricky Casstevens, left, writes down some information for the county commissioners, including Dr. Gary Tilley, at Tuesday’s budget work session in Dobson.
https://www.mtairynews.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/04/web1_Fire-Skull-Camp_filtered.jpgSkull Camp Fire Chief Ricky Casstevens, left, writes down some information for the county commissioners, including Dr. Gary Tilley, at Tuesday’s budget work session in Dobson. Jeff Linville | The News

By Jeff Linville

jlinville@mtairynews.com

Jeff is the news editor and can be reached at 415-4692.

Jeff is the news editor and can be reached at 415-4692.