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Cornelius News

Will a paid fire department become a burning issue?

Cornelius Fire Chief Neil Smith: Talking about a third fire station.

By Dave Vieser. As the number of emergency calls increases along with the population, some Cornelius leaders are pondering whether they must convert the Cornelius-Lemley Fire Dept. to a fully paid fire department.

At the moment, the town’s fire department is classified as a paid department staffed by part-time paid firefighters and supplemented by some volunteer firefighters. As a separate entity from the town, the 73-member force provides fire services like a vendor or contractor to the town. Most of the part-timers are also full-time firefighters elsewhere, predominately in Charlotte.

“They really are our heroes,” Mayor Woody Washam said at a recent town board meeting budget discussion.

This arrangement is also a real bargain for taxpayers. The base pay is $13 an hour.

Cornelius’ rapid growth means more houses, apartments and commercial buildings. And, apparently, another fire station. Town officials discussed a site for Fire Station No. 3 on the 54-acre Alexander Farm on Westmoreland, well east of Catawba, during the Town Board budget retreat in March. A developer is expected to file plans with the town in the near future, according to Planning Director Wayne Herron.

Both Davidson and Huntersville are building new fire stations, which are expected to open soon.

Raising firefighter pay $2 an hour would cost about $120,000 in a roughly $1.6 million department budget.

Cornelius firefighters are the lowest paid in the region, according to Fire Chief Neil Smith. “During the meeting in early March, I reminded the board that I was the only one that made more than $15 an hour. In addition, my three deputy chiefs make exactly $15 an hour, so only four individuals out of our force of 73 make above $15 with our base pay being $13 per hour.”

Smith is also looking for the town to fund more firefighters to help address the increasing number of calls. Even if the department gets every penny they are seeking in the 2019 town budget, there’s a growing sense among town and fire officials that eventually a more expensive fully paid department may be the only way to go.

And with many firefighters working ​already working a second job, the pool of $13-an-hour firefighter candidates is shrinking.

“There may be a point in time that our fire department could become a department of the town which could have a major impact on our budget at that time,” said Washam.

Reading between the lines, it’s likely that a fully paid fire department would result in a tax increase. Cornelius currently has the lowest tax rate for a community this size.