FAIRMONT — Fairmont residents and town commissioners alike took the microphone at a meeting Thursday night to voice concerns over a proposal to contract out the town’s emergency services, with commissioners saying the issue had been “blown out of proportion,” citing coverage from The Robesonian.
The commissioners stressed that no action has been taken towards contracting out those services.
Commissioner Terry Evans asked at the board’s February meeting for Town Manager Linda Vause to conduct a feasibility study on dissolving the town’s Police and Fire departments — which are merged under Public Safety — and contracting out those services to the Robeson County Sheriff’s Office and the Fairmont Rural Fire Department.
The request was put forth as a way to save money.
Five residents on Thursday asked the board not to dissolve the departments, expressing concern that response times would slow.
Tim Prevatte recalled for the board a night when he awoke to find two strangers peering into his wife’s car, which was packed with Christmas presents. Prevatte lauded Fairmont police for arriving at the home before his wife finished speaking to 911 dispatchers.
The board told the crowd it’s not likely that they would vote to eliminate the departments.
“It is vital to the community that we have a strong Police Department,” Mayor Charles Townsend said. “When a commissioner makes a recommendation it is procedure that we say ‘OK, we’ll look it into.’ But I don’t think you have anything to fear about that happening.”
Some commissioners spoke disparagingly about articles in The Robesonian on the proposal, saying they stoked residents’ fears.
“[Evans] said ‘let’s do a study. The next thing we hear is that we’re talking about terminating (the departments), and when you say terminating that means cutting it out. The headline said words that really brought fear into my heart and I know that wasn’t what we said here,” said Commissioner Amelia Ann McLean, referring to a headline from Feb. 18 that read “Fairmont to study eliminating police, fire.”
The Robesonian did not have a reporter at the meeting, and instead spoke with Vause by phone that night. The reporter misunderstood, believing a formal vote had been taken.
That story incorrectly stated that the board had voted to approve Evans’ request. There was no vote following the request.
“No one ever said that we’d take away your Police Department or your Fire Department,” McLean said. “… That’s the most ignorant thing we could do to each other.”
Commissioner J.J. McCree told residents to get their own information on the town government and “don’t have to rely on the newspaper because it’s been proven they are inaccurate.”
The Robesonian has published three articles on the proposal — one reporting that the study had been requested, an opinion piece critical of the idea, saying it was unlikely to move forward, and a letter to the editor from a Fairmont resident.
The board told the crowd it’s looking into any and all solutions to its financial troubles.
“We are in trouble. Every department in this town is being look upon to see if changes can be made, if things can be cut back or increased …,” McLean said.
In other business, the board:
— Voted to move its regular meetings to the third Tuesday of each month. Currently, meetings are held the second Thursday.
— Set a date for a second public hearing on the town’s application for Community Development Block Grants amounting to about $4 million. A public hearing was held on the matter Thursday but no residents asked to speak. The grants will be used to repair sewer lines throughout the town. Vause said more details will be provided at the board’s next meeting.
— Recognized Fairmont Middle School’s basketball team and band for their achievements.
— Authorized the sale of Water and Sewer System Revenue Bonds amounting to $385,000 to be applied to an outstanding Bond Anticipation Note of the same total.
— Accepted a bid of $1,200 for the sale of property located at 505 Gertrude St.
— Shared a letter from the Local Government Commission regarding the town’s financial statements for the fiscal year ending June 30, 2013, which the board receives each year. The commissioners also signed off on a response to the letter detailing its current efforts to cut costs and increase revenue.
— Struck several items from the night’s agenda, including voting to accept bids for the sale of five properties, and a closed session because Town Attorney Rob Price was not present.