By Julia Merchant • Staff Writer
Two Swain County commissioners are having second thoughts about a move to end contracted fire service with the town of Bryson City after listening to the impassioned pleas of volunteer firefighters who shared their comments at a meeting last week.
Town officials had requested more money from the county to match the high number of calls firefighters were answering outside town limits. The county instead proposed ending the contract altogether and building two new stations of its own, leaving firefighters from the Bryson City Fire Department up in arms.
Commissioners Steve Moon and David Monteith were initially supportive of the proposal to build a new station at the industrial park and in the Ela community, but emerged from the meeting with changed minds after hearing a group of Bryson City firefighters air their concerns.
“Those guys have been here a long time, and I think their wishes should be given full attention, and should even maybe take priority,” said Commissioner Steve Moon. “And I was all for building those substations before the meeting Monday night. I’ve changed my mind.”
Moon had qualms about the timing of the project, which will cost an estimated $600,000 to $700,000 to build the stations and buy two fire trucks.
“I don’t think it’s the right time with the state of the economy and our county, and the passion some of these firefighters feel for their fire department,” he said. “Maybe we should table it for a year.”
Monteith also was less sure of the proposal following the meeting.
“I went to that meeting feeling pretty good about what I wanted, but came out and there’s still some answers I need to get,” Monteith said.
Bryson City Fire Chief Joey Hughes, an outspoken opponent of the plan, said he felt commissioners learned something from the meeting.
“I’m not saying someone lied to them, but I think they had some misleading information, and I think we cleared that up and they listened,” he said.
The county’s plan to create new fire stations was largely spearheaded by County Manager Kevin King.
Hughes also questions the project’s timing.
“Maybe one day this might be the right thing to do, but right now it’s not with the economy the way it is,” he said.
Commissioner Chairman Glenn Jones, however, did not appear to waver in his support of the new fire stations. In fact, he didn’t realize others on the board no longer supported it.
“I think the consensus of the board is that we’re going to contract with West Swain, but we haven’t voted on it,” Jones said.
Under the proposal, the county would contract with the West Swain Fire Department. The station would be in charge of applying for loans to fund the new stations and two new trucks, as well as hiring someone to construct the stations.
Jones did not have reservations about the county’s ability to pay the estimated $600,000 to $700,000 the new stations and trucks would cost. The county will divert what it currently contributes to the Bryson and Qualla departments to make loan payments on the new stations, and would only kick in an extra $20,000 over what it pays now.
“I believe that we can handle that, yes,” he said.
The positions of Commissioner Genevieve Lindsay and Phillip Carson are not known.
More discussion likely
Moon said he saw a need for more town involvement in making a decision over county fire service. Hughes has bemoaned a lack of communication between the county and town.
For example, a state fire inspector met with county officials several months ago to provide his opinion on county fire service. The Bryson Fire Department was never informed, Hughes said.
“I didn’t even know he was coming,” Hughes said. “If they had wanted to improve something, why didn’t they include everybody in it?”
Moon urged more town input in the process, and was surprised there hadn’t been.
“I thought that they would be more involved, but they did seem caught off-guard, which is another reason to table it,” said Moon. “We need to work together, not as two separate entities.”
“We need some good old sit down coffee drinking meeting to hammer out everything,” Monteith agreed.
In the mean time, Bryson City Mayor Brad Walker said the town board is considering its options should the county decide to terminate its contract, which is worth $47,000 per year. If the county did so, the town fire department would lose about two-thirds of its call volume, and the number of volunteers needed would likely be reduced.
“We don’t know where we are going, but we have two options,” said Walker. “Either go with the new (county) entity, or make a smaller fire department.”
Walker said the town board will meet with the state fire marshal on March 16 to discuss options.
Meanwhile, the county is in no rush to make a decision. Initially, the county had wanted to get the first new station up and running by mid-summer, said County Manager Kevin King. But with both Moon and Monteith wanting to look into other options, that timeline will likely be pushed back.
“I think the public needs to know more about it,” Monteith said.
Moon said this is one of the biggest challenges commissioners have dealt with in a long while, and it’s keeping him up at night.
“Several nights I’ve laid awake,” Moon said. “I want to do the right thing, for our citizens and our people, and I pray about it. I pray for the Lord’s guidance.”
“If it ain’t broke...”
Hughes says he’s representing the wishes of his 34 volunteer firemen in speaking out against the project.
“I wouldn’t be trying to fix something that ain’t broke,” Hughes said.
Hughes also promised that his volunteers won’t leave the Bryson City Fire Department to join the ranks of firefighters at the new county stations, and expressed doubt about the county’s ability to staff the stations.
“The ones that are already in my department, they’re not leaving,” Hughes said.
Hughes says the county proposal would duplicate services. An Ela station would cover the same area the Qualla Fire Department already covers. A new station at the industrial park would also duplicate service that already exists, being “so close” to the Bryson City Fire Department, Hughes said.
If Hughes had his way, he would build additional stations in different locations than the county proposed. In order of importance, Hughes would place substations in Laurel Branch, on the west end of the Gorge, in Brushy Creek, and in Whittier.