Flaming mad: Firefighters eye county funds

Albemarle County firefighters have saved countless homes over the years, but right now they're fighting to save their own. It'll take cold, hard cash to put out these flames, and the question is, where should the money come from?

Unlike its police department, Albemarle's fire department is a strange breed– a hybrid of government agency and nonprofit– relying on both public money and fundraising to pay the bills. For years, the county's eight volunteer-run stations received a flat allowance for operational expenses such as fuel and utility bills. In addition, they could dip into a no-interest $2 million "rotational" loan fund that helped cover capital expenses including building repairs and new equipment.

That system had problems, says Albemarle Fire Chief Dan Eggleston, because there often wasn't enough in the fund for stations to take out money when they needed it.

In 2003, the County began implementing a series of funding changes for the departments. The County met with each chief to determine each station's operational budget, and in July 2004 began giving each station funds in the amount they had agreed on.

Additionally, the County allocated $5.5 million for apparatus purchases, while the cost of building repairs or additions, according to the policy, "will be considered for funding separately."

While Chief Eggleston says all volunteer chiefs were consulted during the new policy's drafting, not everyone is happy with the results.

"The new funding's allocation is vague," says Ted Armentrout, chief of the Stony Point station, "especially when it comes to the buildings."

The fine print came into focus when the Stony Point station requested some separate money– $349,000– for additional bunkrooms, roof replacement, and parking lot paving.

The station made a formal request to Albemarle County Fire and Rescue, which sent the request to the County Executive's office. In response, the County suggested that Stony Point fundraise to pay for their building needs. Instead, Stony Point went over Assistant County Executive Tom Foley's head to the Board of Supervisors.

"Since the request never got passed on to the board, I went to speak directly to its members during the budget hearings last April," says Stony Point President John Vermillion. "I don't think I got through to most of them, though."

Foley is not surprised by the board's response– or lack thereof.

"We all thought there was an understanding when we switched funding systems, but I guess it wasn't formal enough," says Foley. "There were very few instances when the money from the rotational fund was being used for station improvements in the first place."

That may be why the need is greater now than ever, as the station approaches its 30th birthday.

"The building's been neglected, plain and simple," says Vermillion. "We don't even have sex-separated dorms right now. Everyone just crashes wherever they can find a bed."

Doug Smythers, chief of the Seminole Trail department, says he's surprised that the funding problems haven't been resolved.

"A different mode of funding is naturally going to have rough patches," says Smythers. "Stony Point was the first station to hit a bump in the road."

The outcome may depend on the Supes' meeting in September, at which the appeal for funds will be discussed.

Eggleston says he understands Armentrout's frustration. Fundraising– particularly large amounts of money for buildings– puts a strain on volunteer departments.

"We realize that not all departments have the fundraising capabilities to do that," he says.

It's possible the policy could change in the future, Eggleston says, to cover more capital expenses.

Foley agrees, but he says it won't be a quick decision.

"What they requested has implications beyond just them," he explains of Stony Point. "We're hesitant to fund their building needs because then we'd need to do it for the rest of the county's fire stations, and Stony Point's the only one who's complained."

So far. Other county stations may be encountering similar problems in the near future. Stony Point has the oldest building, but Vermillion says Seminole Trail's call load is significantly higher, and there have been "rumblings" about funds for renovation.

"The Seminole Trail building is almost as old as ours," says Armentrout. "They're going to want a new station, too. What's going to happen then?"