Prominently displayed in the window of the Bryson City Fire Department last week were several signs with the same defiant words: “We serve people, not politics.”
The message was a direct reference to a controversy heating up between the town’s volunteer fire department and Swain County commissioners. The two are at odds over how much the county should contribute to the fire department for handling calls outside the town limits. When the Bryson fire department recently asked for more, the county decided it would stop contributing altogether come July. Instead, Swain County will build two new fire stations and buy two new trucks of its own. It will stop contributing to the existing fire stations in Bryson City and Qualla to fund the new ones.
Since 1992, the county has contributed to the Bryson City Fire Department since it provides service beyond the town limits. It is one of three fire stations in the county, along with one in West Swain and one in Alarka. According to Bryson City fire chief Joey Hughes, the Bryson Fire Department was responding to the lion’s share of calls — nearly two-thirds of the total.
“We’ve run more calls in a month than other departments run in a year,” Hughes said.
The county paid the Bryson City department $47,000 this year.
In December, the town fire department asked the county to up the amount to $70,000 to reflect the high volume of calls the department was responding to.
“The letter indicated that they needed more money to operate the department, that they weren’t getting enough to do it,” said County Manager Kevin King.
Instead of responding to the fire department’s request, the county has opted to end their contract altogether starting July 1.
“If we’re going to spend that type of money, it would be better to increase services outside the city limit,” King said.
The county’s new plan is to create a larger, unified department with no involvement from the town. The goal: provide more comprehensive fire service and decrease fire insurance rates for residents.
But Hughes and his department say the county’s decision isn’t a good one. They say the county doesn’t have a sufficient setup to handle the volume of services the town department currently provides. The decision will hurt the town department, they say, but more importantly, it will compromise the safety of Swain’s residents.
“Our budget will be cut in half, and our calls will be cut by two-thirds under the decision,” said Hughes. “We’re not going to be hurting that bad, but it’s the citizens of Swain County that are going to suffer.”
The town of Bryson City contributed $42,000 to the fire department this year.
Dueling fire stations
The county’s new plan calls for buying two new fire trucks and building two new firestations — one in the Ela community, and one at the county’s industrial park. The West Swain fire department will oversee the plan.
West Swain will borrow about $600,000 to $700,000 to fund the project. The county plans to funnel the resources it is giving to the Bryson City and the Qualla fire departments to help cover the loan payments.
In addition to the cost of building the fire stations and buying the trucks, the new plan would cost the county an additional $20,000 per year, which it plans to factor into next year’s budget. Ideally, at least one of the new substations would be up in running in just five months, King said — roughly the time the town’s contract expires.
King said the new stations will mean decreased response times, which in turn would save county residents about $600,000 each year on their fire insurance premiums, King said.
Under the new plan, rescue equipment such as a Jaws of Life would be available at each of the substations, providing residents with an added safety feature.
But Hughes doesn’t think the county’s plan is feasible, and questions why they’re trying to change something that has proven effective — or why they would want to duplicate a service that’s already in place.
“We know what we’ve got works, and what they’re trying to do is untested,” Hughes said. “What they’ve already got is best for the taxpayer. You’re not crossing district lines, and there’s not going to be a controversy.”
Indeed, King argues that Hughes and his department don’t like the new plan in large part because it would mean others would infringe on territory the town department has covered for years.
“They’re just upset because they’ve had that territory for a long time, and they’re not going to be a part of the solution,” King said.
But Hughes said the county never asked his department to be part of the solution.
“Whenever they started planning all this, they didn’t include the town or our fire department in this; they went to the other fire departments and talked to them about it,” he said.
Hughes doubts the county’s ability to execute its plan with the money allocated.
“With that dollar figure, there’s no way under the sun that they can do it,” Hughes said.
And though King said he has assurances from the county substations that they’ll have enough personnel, Hughes wonders if the stations can recruit the manpower to pull it off. His station currently has 34 volunteers; the other two have eight.
“They’ll get enough names on paper, but getting enough qualified, dedicated people is going to be a problem to keep up the response time that we’ve got now,” Hughes contends. “This day and time, it’s hard to get volunteers that are reliable and good at what they do.”
Hughes said it’s critical to have a big pool of volunteers to pull from, because most work full-time. If a fire emergency happens during a weekday, 10 out of 34 volunteers may show up, he said. That number would be closer to two or three volunteers if the same percentage showed up at a smaller station.
Hughes planned to reason with commissioners to keep the Bryson City Fire Department’s contract at a special called meeting Monday night (March 2). But while Hughes calls the county’s new plan, “a shady deal,” King said the fire department has blown the whole thing out of proportion.
“They’re trying to turn it into something it actually is not,” he said. “We’re talking about public safety for the entire county in an effective manner.”