Tuesday, May 24, 2022

Funding for rural fire departments finds compromise among Pender commissioners

The Atkinson Fire Department is one of four in rural Pender County to receive supplemental funding from the county's general fund. (Port City Daily photo/courtesy Atkinson Fire Department)
The Atkinson Fire Department is one of four in rural Pender County to receive supplemental funding from the county’s general fund. (Port City Daily photo/Courtesy Atkinson Fire Department)

Commissioner Jackie Newton supported the volunteer departments’ request for $250,000 in county funds to address ‘black holes’ of coverage in the rural, western portion of the county.

BURGAW — After years of being denied county funds to address a lack of fire coverage in the rural western portion of Pender County, the Shiloh and Atkinson Volunteer Fire Departments have both received $125,000 from the county’s general fund.

But it came after Commissioner David Williams’ initial objection to fund the departments without oversight at the county level.

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“I can’t vote for this budget, not unless something changes,” Williams said during a Board of County Commissioners meeting Monday evening.

‘Black holes’ in the west

Commissioner Jackie Newton of District 4, which includes Shiloh and Atkinson, voiced her full support for the departments’ funding and, overall, an urgency to improve coverage in the remote areas of western Pender County.

“There are areas with no fire ratings — black holes — where citizens do not have any way of obtaining fire insurance because they don’t have sufficient fire coverage,” Newton said.

Why, she asked, is there such little coverage in the western part of the county?

“Why are we relying so heavily on a small municipal volunteer fire department [in Atkinson] when, in fact, we support and have career firefighters in Pender EMS and Fire that don’t provide coverage?” Newton asked.

She said the supplements would provide full-time daytime personnel in an era that has seen the western region with fewer farmers and more people leaving home to work, making it difficult to build up adequate daytime volunteer forces.

Newton pushed for the fire departments to continue to run themselves independently based on good past performance. She said annual audits have revealed no misappropriation of funds and no indication of mismanagement. The Shiloh Fire Department, according to Newton, has the highest ISO fire insurance rating in the region.

“And quite frankly, since I’ve been on this board, both fire departments have been denied an increase in funds,” Newton said. “They have asked and been denied. I feel like they’re being jerked around and they feel like they’re being jerked around, and I don’t blame them.”

County oversight

Chairman George Brown backed Williams with the notion that a fire department pulling money from the county’s general fund needs proper assessments to assure taxpayers that it is using their money responsibly.

“The audit just shows they are spending money and there is no wrongdoing,” Brown said. “I need more than that. I need to look at taxpayers and say these people are spending the money wisely.”

He said this is especially important in a time where he sees a trend of more and more rural departments requesting county funds. The 2019-2020 budget also includes general fund transfers of $240,000 to the Penderlea Fire Department and $175,000 to the Maple Hill Fire Department.

Brown said the departments in Atkinson and Shiloh had not yet received funding because they wished to continue operating from outside the structure of Pender EMS and Fire, where commissioners serve as voting members to provide taxpayer accountability within that group.

That’s what commissioners have been looking for all along and have not seen with those two departments: voting members to provide oversight,” Brown said.

By the end of the discussion, a compromise was struck between Newton and her fellow commissioners: she would serve as a voting board member for both fire departments in order to provide such county oversight. The chiefs of both departments were present and agreed to change certain by-laws to allow the District 4 commissioner to serve as a voting board member.


Mark Darrough can be reached at Mark@Localvoicemedia.com

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