By Leslee Kulba- Last month, the Buncombe County Commissioners met in a work session to discuss budgetary constraints on firefighters and emergency response personnel. The underlying theme was fire chiefs are trying to strike a balance between containing public expenditures on personnel and equipment and keeping homeowner insurance rates low by meeting rating standards.
CFO Tim Flora gave an overview of fire department revenues. Buncombe County has nineteen fire departments, three of which are nonprofits. Combined, they operate on a $24.4 million budget. Each department is in a special tax district, with levies running from 8.5 cents to 16 cents. The departments receive 70% of revenues from property taxes, 20% from sales taxes, and some departments get additional revenue from operating ambulances and billing customers.
Flora said the county gives the departments monthly disbursements of revenues collected for their respective districts. This is problematic because most people pay their taxes in November, December, and January; so the fire districts have to pace their spending for leaner months.
One thing the county could do to ease financial pressure would be to pay the fire departments the same amount each month. Flora said the county can predict with 99.9% certainty what tax collections will be.
A second option would be to adopt a policy allowing general fund expenditures to be advanced to fire departments in the event of a catastrophe. Flora told how fire departments had to use their own resources to fight the Party Rock wildfire. FEMA reimbursed them, but not until a year later.
Another thing the county could do to help the fire departments would be to pool resources from its information technology, human resources, public relations, and legal departments. The latter could be used for drawing up contracts and standardizing reporting.
A number of fire chiefs then tag-teamed a presentation on expenditures. The main takeaway was Buncombe County’s firefighters are underpaid.
Chief Ryan Cole said nine North Carolina cities were selected as comparables, based on populations served and other factors. In slide after slide, various paygrades for firefighters were the lowest of the low. For example, a firefighter with no managerial responsibilities in Buncombe County can expect to earn $29,3580-$41,906. The average among the ten counties studied was $33,713-$52,208.
Then, there was the cost of living, which shared top-rank with New Hanover. An estimated 40% of firefighters live outside the county because it is more affordable. This proved problematic during the New Year’s Eve ice storm, when firefighters were stranded and couldn’t report to work.
Commissioner Ellen Frost established starting pay for a Buncombe County firefighter was $9.20/hour. Starting pay at the Merrimon Avenue Chick-fil-A is $13/hour. Even though firefighters work a 56-hour week, many qualify for government welfare. Most, however, work two jobs, putting in around 80 hours a week.
Chiefs Randy Ratcliff and Brent Hayner shared that rising costs of running a fire department have been outstripping the rate of inflation. Increases in the prices of gear run between 40% and 750%. Some items must be replaced regularly, and replacing other items regularly can help keep insurance rates down.
Comparisons were made of costs a decade ago. Since 2007, gear for fighting forest fires has increased from $1079 to $6340; for structural fires, from $7130 to $14,654. A line of questioning from Commissioner Joe Belcher established firefighters who don’t want to be left behind need both kinds of gear as well as station uniforms, which run around $5,947. Belcher then pointed out the radios, which cost about $5000 each, were double-counted in the presentation. Costs of purchasing, equipping, and maintaining fire engines are also escalating.
Chief Jeff Justice spoke of factors driving costs up for paramedic firefighters, among which the opioid crisis is not the least. There is a statewide shortage of paramedics, but running ambulances is not the profitable business it used to be, since Medicaid reimbursements run around $60-$120 per trip, compared to the former rate of $500.
Hospitals are typically full anymore, so paramedics may wait with patients an hour before they can be seen. Medications carried on the trucks must now be temperature-controlled, so trucks have to idle the whole time. Then, Mission no longer lets trucks restock from their stores, so a truck can’t go from the hospital to another call but must return to the station because it can’t be dispatched partially-stocked. While costs of supplies have doubled in the past ten years, reimbursement rates are the same.
Chief Anthony Penland, among other things, suggested a 2-cent tax increase proposed to better compensate firefighters might be reduced if the county did not have so much tax-exempt property. Some tax-exempt properties average 160 calls to the fire department a year. County Attorney Michael Frue didn’t think there was much the county could do to change this, as the General Assembly runs into roadblocks every year.