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WAKE FOREST — Keeping town government and the fire department separate will not be sustainable long-term if growth continues to put pressure on local resources, a consultant told Wake Forest leaders this week, while warning that a merger will not come cheap.
The consultant, EnviroSafe, analyzed the feasibility of the town absorbing the Wake Forest Fire Department and making it a department within the town. The fire department is currently an independent nonprofit that receives funding from the town but is administered through a separate board of directors.
The study found a unification with the town government would likely improve efficiency and reduce costly firefighter turnover. But the town would probably pay at least $1 million more in the first year of a merger to provide retirement benefits, information technology and other resources to the department. Most firefighters would likely be given pay raises to ensure their compensation and benefits are in line with other town employees and other fire departments.
The town may have to raise property tax rates by as much as three cents to cover those costs, the study found.
The study recommended the Wake Forest Board of Commissioners and the Wake Forest Fire Board vote to allow unification. Both boards are expected to make a final decision in October, and if approved, the unification could take effect as early as July 2020.
In a presentation to both boards Tuesday, Gregory Grayson, vice president of operations at EnviroSafe, said the benefits outweigh the costs. By unifying, the fire department should expect a better insurance rating and money could be saved by consolidating payroll, IT and communications equipment.
“You’re a smaller wheel turning today,” Grayson said. “That wheel is a little more agile. It can turn more quickly. Being part of the town, you’ll be part of a larger wheel. It’ll turn a little slower, but when it turns it has a lot more horsepower and strength. I think your firefighters recognize that.”
One of the largest benefits would be to firefighter retirement. As town employees, the nearly 80 fire department personnel would have access to the N.C. Local Government Employee Retirement System.
Grayson said many firefighters train with Wake Forest and soon after take jobs with nearby municipal firefighters who offer NCLGERS benefits. Wake Forest has an 8 percent turnover rate for firefighters. The state average is under 3 percent.
Grayson said on average, losing a single firefighter can cost as much as $50,000 as the department will need to recruit and train a replacement.
Responding to questions from commissioners, Grayson said it’s possible that unifying and reducing turnover can improve response time and the level of service firefighters provide.
Even if leaders opt not to unify, the fire department is expected to ask for more money from the town. Call volume has gone up 38 percent between 2014 and 2018, the report found. As Wake Forest continues to see rapid growth and development, funds are needed to hire more firefighters, replace fire trucks and possibly build a sixth fire station in town.
Wake County provides about $1.5 million toward the fire department’s $7.5 million annual budget. That funding comes from a fire service tax district on rural property owners who are covered by the fire department but live outside the town limits. That funding is not expected to change.
Increasing property taxes within the town limits by 3 cents per $100 in valuation would cost the owner of a $200,000 home $60 more a year.
If both boards OK a town government takeover, a transitional period would begin. Leaders would need to find answers to unresolved questions. What will happen to firefighters’ previous retirement plans? How much will fire staff be paid? Will the department keep its same staffing structure? What role, if any, will the fire department board have after a merger? Will vacation time carry over?
No firefighter is expected to lose their job or face a reduction in salary.
“It’s going to be a very long process,” Town Manager Kip Padgett said, urging leaders to make a decision as soon as possible. “There’s a lot of things we’ve got to touch. A lot of people we need to touch. So we’ll just need to have enough time so we don’t rush through it.”