Merger talk raises concerns

Published 1:58 pm Tuesday, July 18, 2017

AHOSKIE – At their June 27 meeting the Ahoskie Town Council unanimously approved a motion to give newly-hired Town Manager Kerry McDuffie and Town Attorney Buddy Jones full authority to approach the Ahoskie Rural Fire Department and discuss a possible merger of their department with the Ahoskie Fire Department.

And while things remain in just the preliminary discussion phase, it has sparked rumors and conjecture as if a merger were a foregone conclusion.

Council, the mayor and the Town Manager were quick to step up and point out that the talk was just that: rumors.

On Tuesday, July 11 at the Council’s monthly meeting, several citizens addressed the Board during public comments; most prominently Cyndy Dilday, wife of Ahoskie Town Fire Department Chief Ken Dilday. Reading from prepared remarks, she made a plea against a merger.

Just this past year, the Ahoskie Fire Department saw it’s annual budget for 20-17-2018 reduced from $980,000 to $788,000.

“The proposed changes within the fire services includes: reducing and/or eliminating five full time paid staff positions of the fire department and changing the way fire service is conducted in this town,” Mrs. Dilday said. “The proposed elimination of a paid fire department would remove 24 hour in-house service of professional firefighters. l know how important minutes and seconds count in a life threatening medical emergency.”

Dilday said the two groups work together for the safety of the greater Ahoskie community.

“They both rely on each other because they function with different roles,” she said. “The Town Department is a small group of paid men, but they are there for the town 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, nights, holidays, everyday.”

Dilday noted the Town Department are first responders who aid the Ahoskie Police Department in certain circumstances. She stated they also do hydrant maintenance, conduct fire safety instruction with school students, and perform fire inspections for businesses as well as homeowners.

“Who will be doing this to keep the businesses and the citizens who frequent these businesses safe,” she implored.

“Their demonstrations engage the children, and some come to the fire station to familiarize themselves with the equipment and learn how to react in cases of a fire-saving emergency. Are we taking this away too? Children need this education”

Dilday recalled how during weather emergencies, firemen are on-call on a 24-hour basis, often leaving family members alone at home for extended periods of time.

“These firefighters were right in this department preparing to stay right here as long as it took to protect this town and its citizens and their property,” she noted. “I know this is what they do because I was at home by myself, but it was okay though because it was what they do and I am proud of what they do.”

Dilday closed still being complimentary to the volunteers, but making certain in her remarks that individuals are aware of the differences.

“Taking away something that takes away the safety and the

life service to our citizens is not the way to fix budgeting mismanagement,” she said. “There are things that the Ahoskie Rural Volunteer Fire Department cannot do if they take over simply because they are volunteers.

“They need the Ahoskie Fire Department to be there 24/7 to continue to do what they do and be that part they have always done,” she concluded to applause from the near-overflow crowd. “The volunteers provide a wonderful co-department to the town, but it is just that: a co-department.”

Following Dilday’s remarks, Councilman Charles Freeman said he too had heard the rumors, but considers them just that.

“As far as my being aware of anything being dissolved or done away with, or pay being done away with, it has not been discussed through me or any others on Council,” Freeman said. “With this many people here we need to clarify that it is a rumor and not anything discussed by Council.”

Later, Tony Marra made comments that echoed much of what Dilday had said and added some further insight.

“The (town’s) fire department is the most important thing for family homes,” Marra stated. “If you have a fire, do you want someone to come from 20 or even 10 miles away? We need people there who are ready to go.”

While also politely acknowledging the volunteers, he also stressed what he felt was the importance of the town department.

“When you think about your homes, think about the people who are going to be there for you 24/7,” Marra said.

McDuffie later said a merger could lead to lower insurance rates for businesses, as noted by Tony Bailey, a Fire Rating Inspector with the state Department of Insurance Fire Marshall’s Office. Currently the town’s fire department has a fire rating of five while the rural department has a rating of six. A merger, he noted, could reduce that rating to a four.

“Anytime you make changes it’s going to create concerns,” McDuffie said.

Meanwhile, several members of the Ahoskie Rural Fire Department’s Board of Directors were contacted. They said they were not aware of any current merger discussions.