Cool Branch Volunteer Fire and Rescue, Pittsylvania County’s smallest fire and rescue agency by call volume, is slated to lose more than half of both its territory in a neighboring county and its donation base next month.
Pittsylvania County leaders had on multiple times requested that Franklin County provide additional funding for the agency and eventually made an ultimatum of either provide more support or lose service. The neighboring county's leaders replied by announcing their intention to walk away in a letter penned Tuesday by Chairman of the Franklin County Board of Supervisors Leland Mitchell.
“The premise in your Board’s resolution that Franklin County citizens get a 'free ride' is mistaken,” the letter says.
Pittsylvania County Administrator David Smitherman, who said that an annual Franklin County contribution of $40,000 was “a realistic scenario,” is shocked by the decision to simply terminate service, while leadership of the agency is disappointed and think that this could have serious negative impacts on the agency and the community.
“We would like Pittsylvania County to reconsider because we want to continue serving Franklin County,” said Scottie Adams, captain of the Cool Branch rescue squad and president of the fire company. “We’re right there and we hate to see somebody in need just a mile from us and we can’t help them.”
Although it is located inside the border of Pittsylvania County, Cool Branch Fire and Rescue has provided services to Franklin County residents in the Penhook and Union Hall communities for decades. Smitherman called Penhook a “singular community,” regardless of county, and finds it “disappointing that we can’t provide government solutions jointly.”
Last year, roughly 60% of the 325 calls where the department's rescue agency was the first due responder, meaning they were the closest agency and sent first, originated in Franklin County. The 110 calls for the department's fire agency were almost evenly split between the two localities.
Franklin County provides annual payments of $10,000 to each agency, amounts that haven’t changed in more than a decade, while Pittsylvania County contributes more than $30,000 for each to go along with insurance and funding for new vehicles.
Pittsylvania County leaders have sent multiple letters requesting some type of cost-sharing program and additional government support for the department, each of which has been met with the response that there is not enough money. In a resolution passed in May, the Pittsylvania County Board of Supervisors essentially left the ultimatum: provide additional support for the agency or lose coverage.
However, contributions from Franklin County residents account for roughly 70% of the department's donations, which cover roughly 2/3 of the entire operating budget.
“We’ve never asked Franklin County for any additional money because the citizens of Franklin County had contributed and helped so much it made up the difference,” Adams said, noting that this whole process has been "triggered" by Pittsylvania County leadership.
Cutting Franklin County off will likely put a major dent in those donations.
“Rather than address what your Board called an inequity, your resolution will lead to trouble for Cool Branch if Waters Edge residents respond by no longer donating to the department,” Mitchell wrote.
Franklin County Administrator Chris Whitlow said that designs are being done for a new fire and EMS station in the Glade Hill area, one that would be further than the current one and could compensate for the loss of service from Cool Branch. This is a long-term plan that was already in the works, Whitlow said.
The locality will also try to position more "roving" units, both for fire and rescue, further east, Whitlow said.
“We are working to position our resources within our public safety system … to cover any service gaps," Whitlow said.
In addition to potentially losing operating funds, Adams fears this decision will cause some volunteers to quit. Right now, the rescue agency has 25 on the roster and the fire agency has 20, with many from both agencies hailing from Franklin County.
Smitherman said he is concerned about “the ability to sustain that station” with the drastic cut in funds and territory.
“It may need to be relocated further into the county toward Sandy Level, or it may need to be disconnected and we contract with Franklin County for service,” Smitherman said.
If Pittsylvania County leaders don’t want to reconsider their decision to terminate service, Adams hopes that they at least extend the deadline to allow for more time for Franklin County to arrange their coverage. Service will cut off on Aug. 17.
“We just think stopping service is going to hurt the community and hurt us also,” Adams said.
Ayers reports for the Register & Bee. Reach him at (434) 791-7981.
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