Fire chief cautions council

pseligson@newsobserver.comApril 11, 2014 

— Fire Chief Patrick Harris wants the Town Council to include more firefighters in the budget year that begins July 1.

Since the Town Council began cutting spending amid the recession, the fire department’s budget has fallen, from $1.6 million in 2010-11 to $1.2 million this fiscal year. The number of paid firefighters has fallen too, from 17 to 13, and the department has fewer volunteers, 25 compared to 28 four years ago. In the meantime, Harris said, call volume has climbed 12 percent, from 1,611 in 2011 to 1,834 in 2013.

“We need positions desperately, but there are none included in this budget,” Harris told the Town Council on Tuesday. He was referring to the 2014-15 budget request he has sent to Town Manager Paul Sabiston.

But it appears unlikely the Town Council will soon return the fire department to its pre-recession staffing. Since 2010-11, the town’s General Fund revenue has fallen from $15.9 million to a projected $13.1 million in the current.

Harris said the fire department is making do with less, running one truck to fires instead of two. And Smithfield calls on nearby fire departments when it can’t cover calls, he said.

But long term, neither practice is good for Smithfield property owners, Harris said. “At some point we’re going to have to have some real conversations about how we’re going to do this, and I’d prefer we have those before something catastrophic happens,” he said.

Harris noted that his department is due for a state inspection soon. The lower staffing level, he said, could harm the department’s fire-safety rating, which could lead to higher insurance premiums for property owners.

On Tuesday, the Town Council also heard from Police Chief Michael Scott, who is seeking $60,000 over the next three years for new radios.

Transfers to continue

Councilmen Perry Harris and Emery Ashley on Tuesday lost their bid to phase out the transfer of electricity profits to the General Fund. Critics of the transfers say they keep electric rates artificially high and property taxes artificially low, hurting both the poor and economic development.

This year, Smithfield is transferring about $700,000 in electricity profits to the General Fund.

Councilman Harris argued that high electric rates are subsidizing the cost of other Smithfield services like police and fire protection. This is especially unfair, he said, because only 60 percent of residents buy electricity from Smithfield; the rest buy it from Duke Energy Progress.

But only Harris and Ashley voted for Harris’ motion to half the transfer in the next fiscal year.

Without the annual transfer, Smithfield would need to cut General Fund spending or raises property taxes to replace the lost revenue. And Councilman Andy Moore said he could not support Harris’ motion without knowing whether phasing out the transfer would lead to a tax increase.

Mayor John Lampe said the town had put off capital spending on maintenance and equipment for too long already. Phasing out the transfer could set Smithfield back even further, he said.

Harris made a similar motion at last week’s Town Council meeting but withdrew it after his fellow council members said they needed more time to consider the impact. But Harris and Ashley forced a vote on Tuesday.

“I was determined that ... they needed to get on record as to whether they support trying to do something about our electric rate or not,” Harris said of insisting on a vote. “That was the reason I did not want to table it again.”

Harris said he planned to return to the matter on a regular basis. “There’s not a lot of desire or interest in the situation, which I think is one of the problems we need to address,” he said.

Seligson: 919-836-5768

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