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PVFD feels financial pinch

WINDSOR – Bertie County’s fire departments need financial help.

Last month, the Trap Volunteer Fire Department came to the Bertie County Commissioners sending that message. Monday morning, members of the Powellsville Volunteer Fire Department (PVFD) echoed that sentiment.

“I’ve been a member of the Powellsville Fire Department for 38 years,” said Merrill Waters. “There has been a great deal of change that has taken place.”

Waters talked about regulations from the North Carolina Department of Insurance and the inspections that are performed each year. He also spoke about the calls the department answered, including fires, wrecks, hurricanes and tornados.

He said the average funding received by each of the 12 fire departments from Bertie County was $11,666. He added, “We are very thankful.”

Waters went on to add that the budget for Powellsville’s fire department last year was $31,468.05. He said the first truck out was a 1972 pumper and then a 1979 LaFrance pumper that was purchased for $1.

He said the LaFrance truck had its engine rebuilt last year.

“We replaced the head on the engine and did the work ourselves at a cost of $1,500,” Waters said. “On our next call, the transmission was stuck in reverse.”

Waters said the transmission is still stuck and the department doesn’t feel it can continue to invest in the old equipment.

He said PVFD had worked to get a new fire truck, but the funding analysis of the United States Department of Agriculture said they couldn’t afford the payment on a new vehicle.

Waters then read excerpts from the Roanoke-Chowan News-Herald of the last meeting when members of the Trap department came to the board, seeking assistance.

“We all realize the economic situation we’re in,” Waters said.

He added that the Bertie County Firefighters Association was working on a “generic fire department” to show the cost of running a normal department in Bertie County.

He asked when the information would need to be passed to the commissioners in time for the 2009-2010 budget. Bertie County Manager Zee Lamb said he was working on a preliminary budget and would continue meeting with commissioners through the month.

Waters then said census data indicated 7,743 households in Bertie County and suggested that a $75 fee per household would garner $580,723 which divided among the 12 departments would give each $48,393.

“Maybe $75 isn’t the figure, maybe its $50,” Waters said. “We’re not asking for an answer today, but we are asking you to look at the situation we’re in.”

After Waters’ presentation, Lamb gave information about the history of funding for Bertie County’s fire departments.

He said initially the departments were given $8,000 and then a small kitty was being divided on a per-call volume. The association came to the board and asked them to give a flat amount to each department, raising it to $10,000 per year.

Lamb said Commissioner Rick Harrell then suggested providing $5,000 on a 1-for-1 match from each department for capital purchases every other year.

“Currently we’re spending $150,000 per year for fire protection,” Lamb said.

The manager said he was opposed to a per-household fee, calling it a “regressive tax” because it would assess the same to each person regardless of ability to pay or cost of the home.

Lamb suggested forming 12 fire tax districts and allowing each one to set the budget for their own department and bring it back to the board.

The county manager said it would be a varied tax in each department because of the tax base in each district and the need for each.

“For example, one penny may bring $6,000 for Powellsville, $20,000 for Windsor and $2,000 for Blue Jay,” he said. “They are all estimates.

“With 12 fire districts, I don’t think you have apples to compare to apples,” Lamb said.

The county manager also said he was concerned about raising funding to the necessary levels from the general fund.

“To enhance the current levels through the general fund on a per-department basis is a slippery slope,” he said. “Once you provide that funding, it is hard to change it.”

Commission Chairman Norman M. Cherry Sr. asked how the fire districts would assess the tax.

Lamb said the fire departments would give a recommendation to the board based on need and the board would approve it and levy the tax.

After Lamb’s comments, Waters said he personally was opposed to the idea of a fire tax district because of the amount it would cost the rural citizens to fund the departments.

“Am I asking Windsor to pay for Trap and Powellsville? Yes,” he said. “But, we will come for mutual aid when we are needed.”

Waters said he hoped the board would study the idea and make the decision that was in the best interest of the citizens.