Firefighters receive increase

Published 10:19 am Monday, July 25, 2016

WINDSOR – Bertie County Commissioners, in a split decision, have voted to give each of the county’s twelve fire departments an additional $10,000 apiece to help meet their needs this fiscal year.

The vote was 3-2 in favor of the increase.

At the final county budget meeting held on June 20, Windsor Fire Chief Billy Smithwick spoke for all 12 of the Bertie County Fire Chiefs in presenting before the Commissioners. Smithwick said he felt it was time for the Board to consider providing additional funding to the local fire departments. He said an increase in funding had not been made to the departments in several years.

“It’s been a long time since we’ve had a raise,” Smithwick said. “Our equipment is costing more, and our safety is more and more at risk; and we think it’s time you considered a raise.”

Smithwick also deplored, at that time, the lowering of the county’s tax rate, calling that idea “morally wrong” considering the number of fire departments currently in need throughout the county.

“I believe if you would ask the citizens would you want a tax reduction or see your fire departments stay good and strong, I don’t think there’d be any question what people would tell you,” Smithwick stated.

Prior to the vote to approve the 2016-17 budget, Commissioner Tammy Lee assured the fire chiefs present that even with the tax decrease, additional funding is available for local fire departments, and that it will be discussed further at an upcoming Commissioner’s work session.

“My very first question was if that (the one-cent decrease) would leave money for our fire departments, because I just think that’s an area where we have failed,” Lee said last month. “I was assured there would still be money available after the one-cent decrease, because I was in favor of helping everybody,

Commissioner Stewart White, who had been appointed to gather data for the Board on the departments’ needs, also discussed the information he received from the fire departments after a recent meeting, which included safety and breathing gear, as well as additional funds needed to cover insurance.

White had some limited research figures and other information about the fire departments’ insurance and equipment.

“We’re contributing $20,000,” White said. “I’d like to see us up that amount to each of the fire departments by $10,000.”

White admitted the additional $10,000 would only put an air-pack on one fireman, or pay the insurance. He then thanked the emergency personnel present for the work they do every day for the county.

Discussion was then concluded at the June meeting and the vote to approve the proposed version of the budget passed without consideration of the fire departments’ increase.

At the July 14 work session meeting, White was back with more data and reviewed various figures he received during his meetings with the local fire departments.

While Windsor gets $191,000 from the town thanks to their municipal fire tax, plus an additional $20,000 from the county, 84 percent of their fire calls are outside the town limits. They’re getting a rescue-pumper (cost: $277,000) available to assist all the departments across the county, according to their Town Manager.

When done with his data presentation, White made a motion to increase each municipality’s contribution from the county budget by $10,000.

For 12 fire departments, the grand total would be $120,000. A budget amendment will be presented at an upcoming Board meeting, possibly on August 1. Lee seconded the motion and it passed by a 3-2 vote with Commissioners Lee, White, and chairman John Trent voting for the increase, and Commissioners Ronald ‘Ron’ Wesson and Vice Chairman Ernestine Byrd Bazemore voting against.

A lengthy discussion among the Board members then followed.

Wesson stated his concerns for getting to the real root of the problem regarding funding for the local fire departments, saying that he felt municipalities should be held accountable for some of the issues plaguing their respective departments.

Bazemore presented similar sentiments, and asked for the Board to wait on this decision until after new information is presented from Kim Miller from the USDA Office of Rural Development regarding available grants or loans for fire department needs.

“Have we studied how we can really help, how we can really have the most input,” Wesson asked rhetorically in an interview. “There may have been ways we could have turned that $120,000 into $500,000 in equipment and services if we could have thought it out and planned it out.”

White and Lee were adamant, however, that the local fire departments cannot afford to wait, and that an additional $10,000 to assist in keeping the departments afloat is vital until a more permanent solution can be secured.

Bazemore and Wesson requested that the record show an objection to the motion, and they strongly urged the Board to consider putting a fire tax to a voter referendum so that the citizens could decide.

“This isn’t a long-term resolution,” Trent said. “But these fire departments need help; insurance is going up and equipment is wearing out – they need something right away. I’m even sure the townships are going to step in now and step up their efforts to help these departments out even more.”