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Local residents voice concerns about supposed mismanagement of fire district

Board is working to update capital improvement plan, vice chair says
By: Bridget Jones, Journal Staff Writer
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With the Newcastle Fire Protection District surveying residents about a potential increase in the tax paid for fire protection, some local community members are questioning the way the district’s board manages itself. Bob Stearns, chairman of the board, has said extra funds brought in from the tax increase would go toward the construction of a new fire station, to replace the current condemned firehouse, and increasing firefighter wages. The district is currently surveying residents to find out what increase they might be comfortable with. If results come back in favor of an increase, the district will send out a ballot to its voters, Stearns has said. Several local residents raised concerns about how the board is managing the district and its money. Newcastle resident Glenda Freeman, a former volunteer secretary of the board for two years, said one of her main concerns is that the district hasn’t updated its Capital Improvement Plan in the past 10 years but is still collecting mitigation fees from property owners who get building permits. Freeman said the district should be updating the plan annually and if it had done so mitigation fees would have gone up with inflation, giving the district more money to put into its building fund for the new station. Yvonne Lewis, vice chairwoman of the board, said the district is doing what it can to get the plan updated and is waiting for information from a title company about the donated land for the new station and how much the station would cost, in order to proceed. “We are in the process of doing that,” Lewis said. “We have been in for some time. We have got a company that’s called Willdan that we have hired to do this. In fact it was a company that was referred to us by Glenda.” Stearns said he isn’t sure that an updated plan would help bring in more money through mitigation fees. “As far as bringing in more, I don’t know because real estate has gone down and bringing in money from any building or anything would (happen) less,” he said. Cool resident Greg Gilbert, who was a volunteer firefighter with the Newcastle Fire Protection District for 19 years, said a couple of major issues with the district are that it does not have a chief and new members of the board can be appointed when current members leave. “A fire department needs a chief,” Gilbert said. “It’s a critical check in the check and balance system between the board and line staff. The lack of a fire chief is a critical issue in the way the fire department has been mismanaged. The board chair cannot run the day to day operations of the department.” A fire chief could better deal with labor problems and maintenance and repair issues in the district, Gilbert said. The district’s current battalion chief, Jay Love, runs the daily operations of the district and assists the board with the budget process, Stearns said. Love receives a salary of $29,140 a year and doesn’t receive medical benefits. He has 48 hours of vacation a year, Stearns said. All members of the board are unpaid volunteers, Stearns said. Stearns said the district doesn’t have the budget to hire a new chief currently. All current board members are elected, although Lewis was initially appointed, Stearns said. Gilbert said he believes an example of the board’s mismanagement of resources came when it tried to sell its water tender truck a few years ago. Gilbert said the truck was stripped of tires and other equipment before being put up for sale, and when it failed to sell, the equipment was put back on and it was decided the water tender would be used for out-of-county strike teams. “Strike team pay for the truck was absent for two or more years,” Gilbert said. Gilbert said he thinks this is an example of wasting staff and financial resources when removing equipment from the vehicle, insuring the vehicle while it was up for sale and putting the equipment back on the vehicle. Stearns said the vehicle was not stripped and that only the tires and wheels were removed so they could be used on other vehicles. The vehicle had other wheels and tires when it was for sale. Stearns said when it is used on a strike team it makes “pretty good money” for the district, and he doesn’t think resources were mismanaged. “Staff resources, as far as putting the tires and wheels back on, that was a pretty simple thing that probably took an hour-and-a-half or whatever,” he said. “There is no additional impact as far as cost from that standpoint.” Shirland Tract resident Rocky Robinson, who lives in the district’s boundaries, said he doesn’t think the district is capable of doing the job it needs to do to protect all residents. Robinson said he doesn’t think residents in his area should pay a higher tax because he doesn’t believe a new station would get the firefighters to his house any quicker. Robinson said his home owner’s insurance went up 70 percent because of the district’s high insurance services office, or ISO, rating of 9 in his area, and he doesn’t think the district is doing what it should to raise its rating. “Why do I want to pay $400 a year to Newcastle Fire when … other fire agencies are qualified to do it now?” Robinson asked. “It doesn’t make a lot of sense to me. Especially with money the way it is right now, everybody’s hurting. I just don’t see where they are going to be able to do the service they need to do.” Stearns said the district does the necessary things to keep current on its ISO rating, including various types of testing and maintenance of personnel and equipment. Stearns said he believes the best way to keep a good ISO rating would be to build the new fire station. Gilbert said he believes the new assessment should pass, but that if it does the district should consolidate with a “well-functioning fire department governed by a capable, effective board of directors” or that the community should take responsibility to ensure more experienced board members are elected to represent the district. Reach Bridget Jones at bridgetj@goldcountrymedia.com