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Wednesday, 21 August 2013 13:05

New fire tax moves to the front burner in Jackson County

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Jackson County commissioners signaled support this week to change the way volunteer fire departments are funded, although the plan is not without its critics.

 

The changes would give each fire department autonomy over its own budget — but along with it would come the onus to fund their own operations by levying a fire tax within their service area.

Under the proposed system, fire departments would no longer get money directly from the county. Instead, they would set their own fire tax rates to be paid by all property owners in the department’s jurisdiction and budget the money they raise accordingly.

“I would like to see Jackson County go toward the fire districts, and I would like to see if the other commissioners feel the same way, and if so, where do we go from here,” Commissioner Vicki Greene said at a county meeting on Monday.

Currently, the county divides a pot of about $800,000 among each of the seven volunteer fire departments to subsidize their operations. The county also funds one full-time employee for each volunteer fire department, to keep regular office hours at the fire station and handle administrative duties.

But whenever the fire departments need extra money for major equipment purchases like a new fire truck, or if they want to build a new substation or enlarge their firehouse, they must come hat in hand to the county. It’s not a position commissioners like to be in.

“When they come in here and make requests, we look like the bad guys when we don’t hand them everything they want,” Commissioner Doug Cody said.

County Manager Chuck Wooten agreed fire taxes as opposed to direct county funding would shift the responsibility to each fire department to raise the money they need from within their own service area, instead of passing the buck to the county as a whole.

“The fire tax puts the responsibility back on them,” Wooten said.

Each fire department would bear the burden of justifying and substantiating their own fire tax rate. Wooten favors the shift.

“I would like to get to a point where departments have a reliable source of revenue they can rely on in the future,” Wooten said.

Wooten also questioned whether the current system is logical, since it awards appropriations to every fire department, regardless of the volume of calls they respond to. 

The fire tax system is commonly used in other counties, including in Haywood and Macon.

However, the changes have resistance in some parts of Jackson county — namely fire districts where property values are lower. The lower the property values in an area, the higher the fire tax rate would have to be to make up for the loss of direct county funding.

The idea was first broached in May this year and was discussed at a meeting of representatives from each of the fire departments, volunteer firefighters and county officials. 

Since then, the fire departments in Little Canada and Qualla have officially come out against it, Wooten said. Balsam Fire Department is neutral at best. But the rest of the fire departments are in favor, he said.

If county funds were pulled, each district would have to raise taxes to fill the hole. Less-affluent districts with lower property values would have to impose a higher tax rate — as much as 5 cents on the property tax rate in Canada. But in Cashiers, it would take just one-third of a cent on the property tax rate to replace what they were getting from the county, since property values there are so much higher.

Nevertheless, county commissioners all seemed to be in favor of the idea — or at least exploring it further. They asked Wooten to outline the next steps.

“Even if we don’t move forward with it, I am not saying we do it, but I would like to know if we thought about doing it where would we start,” Commission Chairman Jack Debnam said.

The process would involve a public hearing and most likely a countywide referendum.

Even if county commissioners don’t push the idea, fire departments in favor of a fire tax could force the issue by stepping forward and calling for a referendum themselves.

Staff writer Andrew Kasper contributed to this article

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