North Carolina Department May Start New Station Construction Before City Decides On Sharing Cost

In a decision that could cost Belmont and South Point peninsula taxpayers, leaders of the South Point Volunteer Fire Department said Monday they are likely to start building a new fire station before Belmont decides whether to share the cost.

The city regularly qualifies for lower interest rates than the department has secured for the $1.2 million construction loan needed to build the station. If the department takes the loan by itself, even if the city agrees later to share the cost, it could cost taxpayers thousands of dollars in higher interest payments.

The department has qualified for a loan with an annual payment of about $70,000 over 25 years. But based on recent loans the city has received, Belmont could borrow the same amount of money with annual payments of perhaps $63,000. That's a difference of $175,000 over 25 years.

Belmont needs to build a fire station somewhere on the southern portion of the peninsula to serve the planned Reflection Pointe development, which the city will annex and therefore must protect from fires. The city would rather split the cost with the volunteer department than foot the whole bill.

But Belmont anticipates annexing other new developments along the peninsula in coming years, and it wants a station positioned to serve as much of the peninsula as possible. The city has hired a consultant to determine the ideal locations for such a station. He should complete his work in about two months.

Department leaders said they are reluctant to wait because, after years of discussion, they still have no guarantee Belmont will share the cost of the station. And they noted that any savings the city might secure by financing the station could be erased if interest rates rise before the city is ready to act.

"This building already probably costs $300,000 more than it should have because we waited and waited," said the department chief, Tommy Wilson. "For the citizens of South Point, I don't know if we can wait any longer. It's costing us money each day."

A 13-member board drawn from the area served by the department, the South Point peninsula south of Belmont, will meet to make the final decision. A date for the meeting has not been announced.

Gaston County supervises the district, and county commissioners have approved the new station. Commissioner Mickey Price, whose district includes both the city and the unincorporated peninsula, agreed quicker construction was more important than the potential savings.

"I don't know if it's that big a deal to the taxpayer," Price said. "These guys really need a new station."

The new volunteer fire station will sit at the intersection of South Point Road and the Duke Power canal about a mile south of the current station. The department has planned the station since 1993 and purchased the land from Duke in 1999.

The department actually signed an agreement with Belmont in 2000 to share construction costs. But Belmont ran out of money for new construction and the department decided to go it alone. Wilson said the department couldn't wait because the current station is too close to the busy road for engines to enter and exit safely.

If the consultant says the volunteer station is well-sited for the city's purposes, Belmont still could offer to pay part of the construction costs. The city also could offer to staff the station with paid firefighters during daytime, when fewer volunteers are available.

The volunteer department said it would welcome either type of contribution.

Such a deal would remain cheaper for Belmont taxpayers than constructing a separate station. It could also reduce the financial burden on South Point peninsula residents.

The department is financed by a tax on residents of the area it serves. To pay for the new station, the county raised the rate this year from 4.5 cents on each $100 of property to 5.7 cents. Money from Belmont could allow the county to reduce the rate.