Fire department funding debate heats up in Jackson
Jackson County commissioners may be looking to change how fire departments are funded.
Currently, the county gives each fire department money out of the general budget. Under the new plan, fire department’s would raise their own money through a separate fire tax.
The fire tax would be tacked on to people’s property tax bill. Each fire department would set its own tax rate, determined by an elected board of directors.
Jackson is the one of only a few counties in the state that funds fire departments outright rather than having separate fire taxes.
But the threat of change is getting a mixed reception among the fire chiefs. Some are in favor because of the extra money it would bring their departments. Others wary it may mean a property tax increase for their districts.
County officials are now testing the waters to see how fire departments and residents react to the idea.
From the county’s standpoint, fire departments would no longer run to the county with hat in hand. If they want a new truck, a new fire station, or more money for training, they would have to get approval from their own fire department board, elected by residents of that fire district.
It would essentially take the county government out of the equation.
“It’s another one of the situations where we are caught in the middle,” Jackson County Manager Chuck Wooten said. “We don’t want to be in the situation of telling you how to run your department.”
Commissioners can end up in the hot seat when it comes to splitting the $1.4 million per year that goes toward fire protection in the county. With seven fire departments all asking for money for equipment and building projects, along with general operations, commissioners are stuck choosing which department gets extra funds and which doesn’t.
And there are several big projects coming down the request line — Cullowhee is in the planning stages of building a new $3.9 million fire station, the Glenville substation wants $100,000 in renovations and the Savannah Fire Department wants to put a $400,000 substation in the Greens Creek community.
Currently, each of the departments gets roughly an equal amount for operations every year — a baseline of $86,000 and an additional $15,000 given for each substation in that district. No extra is given to fire departments that are busier than others.
“In my opinion, there are some inconsistencies now as to how we fund them,” Wooten said. “We give everybody the same amount of money not based on the number of calls they do.”
No more boot drives?
Furthermore, the county money doled out only covers a portion of each district’s actual budget, leaving some fire department’s grossly underfunded. Wooten estimates that for most of the seven fire districts, county funds only cover about half their actual budget.
The rest is made up through fundraisers and other sources.
The Cashiers-Glenville Fire Department gets just under $200,000 per year from the county, but its actual budget is more in the neighborhood of $500,000, according to Randy Dillard, fire chief. The district touts upwards of 500 calls per year and an average response time of seven minutes.
Dillard said his volunteer firefighters do annual mailings to solicit donations as well as boot drives for dollars and change. He doesn’t think its fair to have to scrape together a budget each year to provide a vital need to the community.
“Me and my guys do not deserve to stand on the side of a road with a boot in our hands begging for someone to pay for the excellent service we provide,” Dillard said.
However, Dillard’s district is situated in a unique part of the county. Cashiers’ high-dollar homes mean the fire tax there could be just a cent or two added to property tax rate and bring in a ton of money. Other districts with less pricey property would have to have much higher fire tax rates to bring in the same amount they are getting from the county now.
Commissioner Doug Cody said the county would most likely drop the countywide property tax rate if there’s a shift to fire taxes. The county property tax rate could come down by 1.4 cents per $100 of property value — which is currently the amount that’s spent on fire departments. Overall, the two districts with higher priced property values, namely Cashiers and Cullowhee, would see a tax decrease. The areas with lower property values would see an increase to maintain their fire services.
In the Canada fire district, where the total property value is about 25 times less than what it is in Cashiers and Glenville, it would take a fire tax of 5.3 cents to raise the $300,000 it gets now from the county.
Balsam Fire Chief Johnny Nicholson worried that if a tax is implemented, the fundraising and donations might take a hit because people will feel they are already paying their part. The solution to that problem would be to raise the local district tax rate even more, which concerned Nicholson.
“The only thing that bothers me are the elderly people in the community on a fixed income,” Nicholson said. He also questioned whether it would sit well with the volunteers at his station. “You got to remember we got to pay this tax, too.”
Change is needed
At a meeting last week between county officials and representatives from each of the fire departments, there was loose consensus that something needed to be done in regards to funding fire safety. Cullowhee Fire Chief Tim Green said more than two decades ago, the county built the first fire substation in Glenville and appropriated $15,000 annually to fund it. That’s still the going rate to fund a substation, Green said.
“That tells you how far behind we are,” Green said “We’ve spun our wheels here. It’s to the point where we’ve got to do something.”
He said cookouts, boot drives and mailings aren’t cutting it anymore.
But changing the tax system for funding fire safety will be contingent on gaining public support for it. Ultimately, the issue would be put to a countywide referendum vote, as soon as May 2014, before any changes are made.
If the vote passes, individual fire departments will propose their desired tax rates to commissioners for approval and hold public hearings in their respective districts. Also towns like Dillsboro, Webster and Sylva, which have special fire taxes, will have to decide to keep carrying that tax or not. The soonest changes would be made would be in July next year, Wooten said.
But before the process moves further along, commissioners are looking to hear back from local districts as to how they stand on the issue. Following the meeting last week, Dustin Nicholson, chief of the Canada Fire Department, said he would discuss the issue with his crew of firefighters back at the station. He said he hadn’t made his mind up either way as to whether it would be a good or bad change.
“It’s a mixed bag,” Nicholson said. “To raise more money, we would have to raise more taxes.”
Changes in the fire tax
Currently, 1.4 cents of the property tax rate in Jackson County goes to fund fire departments. The county may drop that from its overall property tax rate and instead let fire departments impose their own fire taxes.
Below are county estimates as to what the new taxes in each district might look like to raise the same amount of money they are now getting from the county.
Balsam: 3.5 cents
Canada: 5.3 cents
Cashiers-Glenville: 0.3 cents
Cullowhee: 1 cent
Qualla: 2.8 cents
Savannah: 4 cents
Sylva: 2.5 cents