The negotiations between Pittsylvania County and neighboring Franklin County regarding the response area for the Cool Branch Volunteer Fire and Rescue Agency came to a head last week.
Pittsylvania County’s Board of Supervisors offered three scenarios that would allow parts of Franklin County to continue receiving fire and EMS services from the Cool Branch station, located not far from the boundary line near Penhook and Smith Mountain Lake.
The discussion for several years has centered on Franklin County’s funding, or lack thereof, of an emergency response unit located in Pittsylvania County that makes more than 60% of its response calls in Franklin County.
Since 2011, Pittsylvania County has provided $1.2 million in funding for the Cool Branch station, compared to just $200,000 received from Franklin County.
Pittsylvania County set a Dec. 1 deadline for Franklin County officials to decide how they’d like to proceed. By implementing a deadline, Pittsylvania County is sending the message that its neighbor must start providing more funding to the station to account for the level of calls it responds to across county lines, or it must adjust Cool Branch’s coverage territory to be more in line with the current funding level.
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“In the entire county, we have a responsibility to our citizens — they’re the taxpayers, and that’s the dollars that go toward buying equipment and funding these fire and EMS stations,” said Ben Farmer, the Callands-Gretna district supervisor, whose district includes the Cool Branch station. “When you have one that will run calls into another county continuously, I think you have to look at that and say, ‘Are we being responsible with our taxpayers’ dollars? Are we making wise decisions by allowing that?’”
The Register & Bee reported in May that the traditional response from Franklin County officials in the past has been that they are not in the financial position to be able to increase support.
Franklin County Administrator Christopher Whitlow said in an email that the county did not receive the information from Pittsylvania County until last week and supervisors have not had the opportunity to discuss it. He said the information will likely be discussed at the November Franklin County Board of Supervisors meeting.
The three options now available to Franklin County include adjusting the area for Cool Branch and paying for each service call within its borders; contributing $40,000 annually for fire and rescue services and reimbursing Pittsylvania County for 50% of all future equipment costs; or incorporating a section of Franklin County into Pittsylvania County in exchange for the latter providing 24/7 paid EMS coverage.
“Since Franklin has yet to present a comprehensive and fair proposal, our supervisors proposed three unique arrangements, which range from a simple increase in contributions to redrawing the borders of our counties, because we are committed to finding a solution that works,” Pittsylvania County Administrator David Smitherman said in a statement. “We are confident that Franklin County will find one of these solutions equitable and won’t allow Cool Branch coverage to expire for much of the Penhook community.”
Farmer sees that middle option as particularly feasible and agreeable. Currently, Franklin County contributes $10,000 for fire services and $10,000 for EMS services. To instead ask for $40,000 annually would simply double those payments.
“In the scope of county government, that isn’t that big of an increase,” Farmer said.
Farmer called the third option the least likely in his mind, even though it might make the most geographic sense. The Cool Branch station, Farmer estimated, is located just a few hundred yards from the entrance to a housing community called The Water’s Edge, which juts out into Smith Mountain Lake.
“To me, there’s no doubt in my mind [that] when that station was built it was intended to serve that housing community because it’s more than 400 homes in there,” Farmer said, “but unfortunately, 30 years ago when it was built, it was built in Pittsylvania County.”
Pittsylvania County’s Board of Supervisors has granted several 30-day extensions of service since the summer to allow the two sides to come together in agreement. In the absence of one, Pittsylvania County saw this enforced deadline as a necessary step to take. Farmer said it is not meant to be mean-spirited, but Franklin County needs to commit to something sooner rather than later.
“We’re just trying to be good stewards for our citizens while at the same time being very cordial with our neighbors because you are talking about a very serious matter in terms of fire and EMS coverage,” Farmer said. “I take that very seriously, so I didn’t want to do anything aggressive in terms of just stopping that, but here we are six months in, and we just haven’t made progress on negotiations.”
Parker Cotton writes for the Danville Register & Bee.