LELAND, NC (WECT) - The Leland Volunteer Fire & Rescue Department has just released its 2016 audit report. The department has been in the spotlight for the last six months, after being placed on probation by the Office of the State Fire Marshal.
After receiving a citizen complaint about slow response times by the LVFRD, a state investigator conducted a spot inspection of the department. He uncovered staffing shortages that rendered the department unable to send out the minimum number of firefighters required for a handful of emergency calls last year.
The department was placed on probation for a year and told to fix its staffing problems or risk having its fire rating dropped from a 6 to a 10, which would mean a significant increase in home and business insurance costs for people in the Leland Fire District.
The LVFRD is a nonprofit organization which is under contract with the Town of Leland to provide fire services for the town. They have 20 full-time firefighter positions, and employ dozens of other employees on a part-time basis. Over 80 volunteers also contribute to their force.
Some have wondered why LVFRD's $2.5 million fire budget doesn't stretch any further than it does. LVFRD Chief John Grimes said they are only able to staff one of three fire departments in their district with their current manpower and budget, which comes primarily from fire fees charged to people living in the fire district.
WECT has learned the salaries being paid to LVFRD firefighters are higher on average than salaries at many fire departments in much larger cities, including Wilmington. While their sole obligation to the Town of Leland is to provide fire services, LVFRD also elects to provide EMS, and requires its employees to be cross-trained as firefighters and paramedics. The higher salaries reflect the elevated certification requirements.
In recent weeks, WECT has heard complaints about the certification requirements from inside the department. Despite the higher salaries, we're told that some employees resent being expected to commit to a two-year process to become certified as paramedics, when their primary interest is fighting fires.
Our source spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of being terminated, but said that this certification requirement, on top of a full-time job as a firefighter, is too much to ask and had contributed to turnover at the department.
Leland firefighters making more than those in Wilmington
Based on a quarterly tax and wage report Leland submitted to the NC Employment Security Commissioner, all but three of the LVFRD's full time staff members make more than $40,000 a year. More senior members of the department make closer to $60,000 and Chief Grimes makes just over $80,000.
The department serves a district with a population of approximately 26,000 people. Wilmington has over 100,000 residents in its fire district.
"We completed a compensation study last year and yes we should be higher than most surrounding departments," Chief Grimes explained. "We are higher than the City of Wilmington, however, we require more certifications."
Chief Grimes said his department's salaries should not be compared to firefighter salaries in Raleigh or Charlotte either. "None of those municipalities does EMS transport," he said.
In North Carolina, municipalities are required to provide fire services, and counties are tasked with EMS coverage. Grimes says 65% of the calls they respond to are EMS related. Brunswick County would be required to respond to those calls were LVFRD not offering that service, and some Leland residents have complained they are paying for duplicate services. Grimes says LVFRD bills for EMS calls, but their EMS services are not self-sustaining.
Compensation study marked "confidential"
Chief Grimes said it would be better to compare their salaries to those in other departments that provide fire-based EMS. He mentioned places like Morehead City and Guil-Rand in Randolph County as being a better basis of comparison.
All of that is information is available in the compensation study Grimes referenced, but his board has marked that study confidential so he was not able to provide details. It was not immediately clear if public money was used to pay for that study.
Grimes said he could ask his board to reconsider releasing the study, but they don't meet until the end of the month. Some board members have also expressed concern about making that document public, explaining other departments that provided data for the study might be unhappy if that information was disclosed.
Future of Leland fire service
While many agree it's a nice service to have, some Leland Town leaders are concerned that the LVFRD's emphasis on EMS is coming at the expense of adequate fire coverage, which is the Town's primary requirement under state law.
The Town is studying a variety of options, which could range from: leaving the contract with LVFRD as is, to amending the contract, bringing the department under the town's umbrella and oversight, or breaking ties with the department entirely.
"Leland is exploring our options to provide fire service to the community, it's really not geared around trying to stabilize and support the Leland Fire & Rescue LLC, this is what is going to be in the best interest of the community now and in the future," Town Councilman Mike Callahan has explained.
The CPA who audited LVFRD concluded, "In our opinion, the financial statements…present fairly, in all material respects, the financial position of Leland Volunteer Fire/Rescue Department, Inc. as of June 30, 2016, and the changes in its net assets and its cash flows for the year then ended in accordance with accounting principles generally accepted in the United States of America."
CPA Nigel Bearman goes on to outline the department's various revenues and expenses.
"The Department's operations are funded from two primary sources [Fire District Fees and EMS Accounts Receivable]. If a significant reduction in funding from these primary sources, particularly Brunswick County, were ever to occur, it could have an adverse impact on the Department's activities," Bearman wrote.
LVFRD has more than $1 million dollars in debt on equipment and real property it is currently paying down, and recently added to that debt with the purchase of a $219,000 ambulance.
The auditor also notes that the department is governed by a board of directors, and two of its officers are related by marriage. Chief Grimes serves as Chief Operating Officer, and his wife, Diane, serves as Secretary, Treasurer and Vice President of the Board.