On Thursday, October 8, Moore County's new Fire Commission will review the final draft of a funding formula developed to drive budgeting for the County's seventeen fire and rescue departments.
The work of the Commission to standardize service across the County has already become controversial, at least in West End and Foxfire Village, as bits and pieces of the funding formula have appeared in the minutes of the Commission.
It appears inevitable that the funding model will recommend that the County pay for fewer paid firefighters at West End Fire and Rescue [WEFR] than that department's Board of Directors currently has on staff.
Both the WEFR Board and the Village of Foxfire, which is served by the West End department, have expressed concern that a reduction in paid personnel will undermine coverage.
The Times met with Fire Commission Chairman Mike Cameron; Rich Lambdin, President of the Moore County Fire Chief's Association; and County Fire Marshal Ken Skipper on Tuesday, September 22 to better understand the rationale behind the Commission's funding formula. Cameron is Chief of Cypress Pointe Fire & Rescue; Lambdin is Chief at Whispering Pines Fire and Rescue.
Created by the Board of Commissioners
Cameron told The Times that the Commission was formed by the Board of Commissioners in January. It includes five fire chiefs and five citizens drawn from across the county, as well as Lambdin, representing the Chief's Association.
The Commissioners created the panel at the recommendation of VFIS, a company that provides insurance, training, and consulting to fire and rescue operations.
VFIS conducted an extensive study of the County's fire and rescue operations in 2012, delivering in March 2013 a two-inch thick report that included 35 recommendations for improving service.
The Commissioners asked the Fire Commission to begin by addressing six of those recommendations:
• To implement a single fire tax rate — which the County implemented with the beginning of the new budget year in July.
• To develop a long-term funding model.
• To revise the contracts between the County and its fire and rescue departments.
• To study consolidation and mergers of departments.
• To develop a plan for group purchasing.
• To help implement recommendations that VFIS made for individual departments.
A balanced level of service
“Our guiding principal has always been to offer a balanced level of service throughout the county — what we would consider a minimum level of service,” Cameron said. “The level of service in the county is all over the map. Some departments are offering extremely good service, and some departments are probably just barely squeaking by.”
“We want to bring up that minimum level across the Board to allow everyone to have at least that minimum level of service — not the maximum level of service — at equitable cost.”
In pursuit of that goal, the Fire Commission approved a Service Delivery Statement that read as follows: “A County of Moore contracted fire department will respond to any dispatched incident within their fire district, and will respond within five minutes of dispatch and be on scene with appropriate apparatus and personnel in twelve minutes, eighty percent of the time.”
In order to accomplish that, Cameron explained, the Fire Commission is interested in “rightsizing.”
“We're making sure that departments who are below the minimum are brought up,” he said, “and departments that are way exceeding that minimum . . . There's no one on the Fire Commission on in the County that is going to walk into a fire station and take something out of that fire station. It may mean that we don't fund it at a certain level.”
The way that plays out is perhaps easiest to see in the case of apparatus — the engines, tankers, ladder trucks, ambulances, and quick response vehicles that are the core tools of the fire and rescue trade.
For example, the proposed allocation of fire engines is linked to non-medical call volume. Every fire station needs at least one engine, of course, and the formula allocates additional engines based on the number of calls the department responds to in a year.
So, in the draft formula, Carthage, which has two stations and responds to more than 500 calls per year, needs four engines, but has only three. Seven Lakes, with one station, and responding to fewer than 500 calls per year, needs two engines but has three.
“We're not going to Pinebluff, or Seven Lakes and take that engine away from them, Cameron said. “Instead, that engine may not be in the funding formula.”
In other words, departmental budgets each year will include an allocation for the replacement of apparatus, so that, over time, enough money is saved to replace aging equipment. Under the proposed funding formula, no funds would be allocated for the replacement of the excess engine at Seven Lakes.
“That doesn't meant that Seven Lakes is not going to keep three engines,” Lambdin added. “But, from a Moore County funding perspective, the capital replacement would fund only those two.”
Similar rules of thumb have been developed for the funding of all other pieces of apparatus.
In the same way that the Commission has tried to bring standardization to the allocation of equipment, it has worked to develop a similar approach to staffing.
“Staffing is all over the place,” Cameron said. “Everybody uses some different formula for staffing.”
“Most of which comes down to whatever you can afford,” Lambin added.
“And, sometimes, departments have made unsustainable decisions,” Fire Marshal Skipper said.
Cameron said the goal is to make sure that the allocation of paid personnel is equitable throughout the County.
The current draft of the formula looks at the number of paid firefighters in each department compared to the total population of the fire district.
For example, in the Village of Pinehurst, with 29 full-time personnel, there is one paid staffer for every 574 people in the district.
West End, with nine full-timers, has an even smaller ratio, at 408 persons per firefighter. But in Robbins, the two paid staffers each serve 3,006 people in the district. Seven Lakes has 3.8 full time equivalents, one for every 983 residents.
“We would love to be able to say that we follow the West End pattern, and every fire department would get nine full-time people,” Cameron said. “Can we fund that? No.”
During the Commission's September 10 meeting, its members agreed that the ratio of population to paid firefighters should fall between 600 and 900 in each district. If that is carried through to the final funding model, Robbins would go from two to seven full-time equivalents, while West End would fall from nine to six.
Just as the Commission has no interest in moving fire engines from one department to another, it is not attempting to move people from one department to another. However, once accepted by the Commission and approved by the Board of Commissioners, those target personnel allocations will determine the FY2017 departmental budgets.
One option that could lessen the impact of the proposed allocations in the West End and Seven Lakes area is something recommended in the VFIS study: a merger of Seven Lakes Fire, Seven Lakes EMS, West End Fire and Rescue, and the Eagle Springs Fire Department. A similar merger took place a few years ago on the east side of the County, when several departments merged to become Cypress Pointe Fire & Rescue.
If the funding formula calls for fewer personnel at West End and more at Seven Lakes and Eagle Springs, a merged department would be one way of accomplishing both goals. Cameron said merger talks are underway between Seven Lake Fire and Seven Lakes EMS, but he was unaware that Eagle Springs or West End have been brought into those talks.
The Fire Commission has taken a go-slow approach to the question of mergers, Cameron said, encouraging departments to hold talks on the possibility, but not trying to force the issue.
The municipal share
Many of the County's fire and rescue departments have incorporated towns and villages within their fire districts — Foxfire, for example, lies within the West End Fire District. Residents of municipalities that provide fire protection pay County property taxes, but they do not pay fire district taxes. Instead, the cost of fire protection is covered in their municipal taxes.
In the case of Foxfire, the Village contracts with WEFR to provide fire protection service.
In the Fire Commission's funding formula, that raises the question of how much of each department's funding should be provided by the municipality, and how much by the County.
The current draft formula bases the answer to that question on the population, the call volume, and the number of square miles attributable to the municipality.
In the case of WEFR, the draft formula suggests that Foxfire Village should be providing 16.5 percent of the funding for the department, while the County should pay the other 83.5 percent.
What the County can afford
Ultimately, the allocation of apparatus and personnel, along with similar calculations involving capital costs related to buildings and operational costs associated with running a fire department all come together in the funding formula to produce a total recommended budget.
Taking out the municipal share of that budget leaves a recommended County funding level. And that, in turn, generates a recommended fire tax rate.
In the current year's budget, the Commissioners collapsed sixteen different fire tax rates that ranged from 4 cents per hundred in Seven Lakes to 11.1 cents in Crains Creek into a single 8 cent rate.
The draft of the overall funding formula that was current on September 22, when The Times met with Cameron, Lambdin, and Skipper, was 11.6 cents per hundred.
“The Fire Commission feels pretty good that this is the amount of money that it takes to balance the level of service in Moore County,” Cameron said. “I don't believe the Commissioners can afford to fund that, right now.”
“We're going to ask them to help us build a plan that, over a number of years, will help us get to where we need to be.”