After much discussion at Monday night’s Vance County Board of Commissioners’ meeting, the general consensus was that even more discussion is needed before moving ahead with fire redistricting plans.
The Board voted to table a decision on redistricting plans pending a work session for further discussion that would be open to the public. A date and time for the session will be announced once confirmed.
The proposed plan, as presented by the Fire Commission, included, in part, converting the Vance County Fire Department into a volunteer department with some paid personnel and designating the Golden Belt Fire District it serves as a volunteer district.
Much of the discussion from the dozen or so people who spoke during the public hearing portion of the meeting focused on the plans for the Vance County Fire Department.
Hartwell Wright and John Bunch, the first two public speakers, expressed opposition to the plan as proposed. Wright questioned the necessity of changes needed to a department that he believes is working as is and Bunch, while conceding that there are good points to the plan, urged for further consideration and study.
Concerned citizens Phyllis Stainback, Tim Jenks and Bill Edwards also spoke against the plan.
John Watkins and Bryan Yount spoke next in support of the redistricting as proposed and said what mattered to them was the reduced response time offered by the plan. Yount further elaborated that the proposal was fair and would spread ISO – insurance ratings – more equally throughout the county. The details of how ISO ratings would be affected if proposed changes were made is unclear at this point.
Deborah Brown, former commissioner and school board member, spoke in favor of the proposal and stated that the plan could be implemented in phases to allow for an adjustment period.
The Vance County Fire Department was represented by Mark Pitzing, Brian Williams and Chief Chris Wright who spoke against the proposal stating that the change to a volunteer department would be a step backward and would negatively affect the current guaranteed response time.
A concern with the national trend of decreased volunteerism in a time when call volumes are increasing was also expressed.
Wright, fire chief of Vance County since 2015, told the commissioners that the Golden Belt Fire District requires a 24-hour service and should not be compared with volunteer districts.
Wright stated that the Golden Belt’s service area includes 123 businesses and the larger of the Vance County schools, including Vance County Middle School and Vance County High School, making the district unique in their needs.
County Manager Jordan McMillen agreed that the current proposal works from a financial standpoint but does not address a number of details and concerns.
Chief among the concerns, according to McMillen, is the need for 24/7 coverage in the Golden Belt; the instability of a system that could fail to function if all positions are not filled at all times; the fact that the Vance County Fire Department acts as a backstop for all other departments; and the uncertainty of what happens to the fire chief position under the proposed plan.
McMillen said the most current fire study, completed in 2008, called for increased funding and part-time help, measures that have already been put in place to some extent. However, McMillen said moving forward with more cost-saving measures in the future may be accomplished in ways other than splitting up the Vance County Fire Department.
In concern of the age of the previous fire study, Commissioner Tommy Hester proposed that an updated, independent study be conducted. Commissioner Leo Kelly seconded the motion. With a vote of 4 against and 3 in favor, the proposal did not pass.
The next step for the Board will be to discuss the fire redistricting plan in an upcoming work session open to the public for observation but not for commenting.
Board Chair Archie Taylor declared that the Vance County Fire Department and Golden Belt Fire District will operate as is pending the outcome of the work session.
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