- Special Sections
- Public Notices
CALABASH—It took a tiebreaker vote for a Calabash Fire Department committee to approve maximum fees for the upcoming fiscal year.
Calabash Mayor Anthony Clemmons and Carolina Shores Mayor Stephen Selby voted against the fees, outlining before the vote their objections to an increase the department hasn’t seen for the last six years, except for population growth increments.
Prior to the vote, Calabash Fire Chief Karl Bennett outlined departmental needs and expenses for which finances have not kept pace, he said.
“Our old apparatus is getting older all the time, needing repairs,” he said, adding the department is desperately in need of personal protection equipment for its firefighters.
“Right now we have firefighters that do not have currently acceptable turnout gear, and we have at least one firefighter that doesn’t have any turnout gear,” Bennett said.
“What has happened is our cost of operating with the cost of everything that’s being put on us, from NFDA, department of insurance and OHSA, has far outstripped our income. We’ve been living hand-to-mouth.”
Last year, the two towns gave the department $30,000 each to match the SAFER grant, requiring the department to hire full-time personnel, which has been done, Bennett added.
“With the hiring of personnel, we need the money to continue that program this year,” he said.
Bennett said the department has “totally run out of volunteers.” He said it is down to 19 people in the district. Of those, seven are qualified to do interior firefighting work.
“The [state] department of insurance says we need 21 to operate a fire department,” he said.
For the first time, Bennett said, the department has overrun expenses because of equipment, repairs, and the rising cost of fuel.
Bennett, Brunswick County Commissioner Phil Norris and Calabash Fire Board Chairman Jennings Edge voted for the new fees while Clemmons, Selby and fellow fire fee committee member Troy Price voted against them.
Brunswick County Fire Marshal Scott Garner cast the tiebreaking vote in favor of the new fees.
During the hour-long session, session Clemmons and Selby cited reasons for not approving maximum fees.
Clemmons said he supports an increased fire fee, but not the full amount because of the burden it will place on citizens. He said he recently brokered a meeting with Brunswick County emergency services director Randy Thompson and Carolina Shores (Selby) to discuss “increased financial responsibility and accountability.”
“We feel the same way about the big raise,” said Bennett, citing a chart reflecting if the department had had a program in place, with gradual fee increases each year, “we wouldn’t be sitting here discussing this at all. We have no control of that as a department. All we can do it make requests.”
Bennett acknowledged fire departments need to change, citing the Ocean Isle Beach Fire Department, which will become a municipal department.
“I believe that we’ve headed in the same direction that they wound up in,” he said.
Norris said he has heard the same thing from departments in his district, noting fees mandated by the state legislature have not allowed for inflation and have been sitting dormant for “years and years and years.”
The current schedule is the result of local chiefs’ and departmental efforts, he said.
Norris said all of the departments he has met with so far have adopted full fees “because they recognize they’re not going to survive without it.”
Clemmons said Calabash is different because of extra contributions provided by the towns to the department.
“In the past 10 years, we have contributed, little Calabash, over $200,000 to our fire department,” he said. “We currently contribute between $10,000 and $15,000 more than any other customer in addition to the $30,000.”
“That’s what concerns our citizens,” Clemmons said. “Here we are looking at a possible 100 percent increase in addition to the contributions.”
Other board members disputed Clemmons’ and Selby’s generalizations that the new plan will double fire fees, since fees are based on square footage.
For homes and mobile homes up to 1,000 square feet, fees will remain at $50. For homes 1,001 to 2000 square feet, fees are $100. For homes that are 2,001 to 3,000 square feet, fees for some homeowners will increase from $100 to $200.
For businesses up to 5,000 square feet, fees will be $200; 5,001 to 10,000 square feet, $400; 10,001 to 20,000 square feet, $800; 20,001 to 30,000 square feet, $1,000; and 30,001 to 40,000 square feet, $1,500.
Bennett reiterated all other fire departments in the county are in the same situation Calabash is in.
At the county fire chiefs’ association budget retreat, a commissioner directed looking into going to a countywide fire tax, he said.
“Hopefully by one way or another, we can get out of this situation we’re in right now,” Bennett said.
Selby said the department has been acting more like an emergency medical response unit than a fire department. He said his town administrator told him Carolina Shores has not had a housefire for the past few years.
“The fire department is not here for the number of fires it runs,” Bennett responded. “It’s here because if there is a fire, then they go.”
He added that within the past year, the department received one fire call from Selby’s town and three houses were hit by lightning.
“You’ve got to have a fire department,” Norris said. “This is what the legislature has given us to work with. And at the end of the day, if the money’s not there, you don’t have the service.”
And without service, he said, the ISO rating will go up and subsequently so will insurance rates. The department currently has an ISO rating of 5, the lowest possible for its size, Bennett said.
“It’s a balance,” Norris said. “$300 more in insurance, or $50 more in fire tax?”