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Jackson grapples with fire tax question

fr firecallsJackson County’s elected leaders will be have a big decision to make over the coming month: to levy a fire tax forcing property owners in lower-value areas of the county to pay higher bills or watch local fire departments continue to struggle with old equipment and insufficient manpower.

“That’s something that our board is going to have to come to grips with over the next couple of weeks,” Jackson County Commission Chairman Brian McMahan told a gathering of the county’s elected leaders March 2. 

The need is real, fire department leaders have told the county. In the Cashiers-Glenville district, for example, fire call volume has increased from 488 calls per year to 627 just between 2012 and 2014. In Cullowhee, the jump is more modest but still sizable: from 467 to 557. 

As calls have increased, it’s become obvious that volunteer labor is not sufficient to meet the need. In Cashiers, that’s especially true. By and large, the volunteers who staff the department can’t afford to live in Cashiers. That causes increased response time, because volunteers have to drive from wherever their homes are.

“All of your good firemen have jobs and the people are finally making money now,” said Cashiers Fire Chief Randy Dillard. “It’s gotten to the point where it’s time to get something worked out for it.”

Currently, county funds pay for one full-time position at each fire department, but that person isn’t there around the clock. Dillard and Tim Green, chief at the Cullowhee station, believe they need to increase their budget enough to have a pair of firefighters at the station at all times. 

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“If I’m not in town, there’s no one to run fire calls,” Dillard said. “Our guys do a great job, but they’re all from Glenville, Pine Creek.”

Meanwhile, equipment is aging and departments are coming up short on the dollars to replace it. Currently, departments are operating on a combination of county dollars, fundraising and grants. 

“The last two years that’s the reason our budget’s a little bit lower, because we haven’t had the money to spend to buy new equipment,” said Cullowhee Chief Tim Green. 

So, commissioners have come back to the idea of a fire tax, something the previous board debated extensively in 2013. But they never allowed the tax to go to a referendum vote as planned because only three of the seven fire chiefs really supported the idea. 

“We felt like if it was going to be placed on the ballot and a majority of fire districts did not support it, the likelihood it would pass was minimal,” County Manager Chuck Wooten said. 

At this point, commissioners are considering the option of taxing only the districts that have requested to be included, allowing those opposing the tax to simply continue to receive the same allotment from the county that they have been. However, the Cashiers, Cullowhee and Sylva departments have all said they support a fire tax in their district, so at this week’s joint meeting with elected officials from Jackson County’s towns, county leaders shared the particulars of the fire tax idea and asked municipal leaders to consider its merits. 

“The commissioners, if they move this forward, would be interested in working with the municipalities to understand if you would like to see a service district established, and if a tax rate was established that would eliminate the need for the municipalities to levy a tax,” Wooten explained. 

All of Jackson County’s incorporated towns already use tax dollars to support their respective departments. If the county decided to go the fire district route, commissioners would ask that the municipalities dissolve their own fire taxes in favor of funding through the service district. The lines dividing the county’s various fire districts have been in place for more than 20 years. 

For the municipal officials who attended the meeting, that was a lot of information to take in all at once.

“There’s certainly a need for fire departments, and there’s a lot of places that are hard to reach,” said Sylva Commissioner Mary Gelbaugh. “I need to give it some thought. I need to do some homework.”firecalls large

“We definitely have to just evaluate it and look at the numbers,” said Forest Hills Mayor Kolleen Begley. 

“We really just have to sit down with all the board members,” said Dillsboro Alderman Tim Parris. 

They won’t have all that long to do it. In order to advertise a public hearing, work out the details of the tax and have it ready to go by the time the fiscal year starts July 1, commissioners have to make a decision this month. McMahan asked for municipalities to pass a resolution expressing their support by March 23, if they were inclined to do so. 

However, he stressed, the fire tax is far from being a done deal, and the board’s mind is far from being made up. 

“We’re trying to look at all the options that we have available to us to try to meet these needs. This is just one of the options,” McMahan said. “We have not committed to doing this.”

 

Footing the bill

The concept of the fire tax is that each district would supply the dollars needed to meet the budget of its own local fire station. That money would come from a tax based on property value.

The catch, though, is that all property values are not created equal. In Cashiers, for example, the total tax base is $6.2 billion, while in Cullowhee it’s $1.2 billion. The average home in Cashiers is worth $472,900; in Cullowhee, the average is $208,500. 

In addition, the rates necessary to keep the fire departments’ budgets afloat could well increase after Jackson County completes its property revaluation this year, because home values are expected to go down. 

Take a look at the budgets for each of the three fire departments requesting a fire tax in their district and what the yearly tax might be for various home values. 

Cashiers Requested budget: $1.1 million

Tax rate required: 1.95 cents per $100 of home value

• A $472,900 property (the average) would contribute $92 per year. 

• A $1 million property would contribute $195 per year. 

• A $17.1 million property (the highest) would contribute $3,327 per year. 

Cullowhee Requested budget: $649,000

Tax rate required: 5.67 cents per $100 of home value

• A $208,500 property (the average) would contribute $118 per year. 

• A $1 million property would contribute $567 per year. 

• A $13 million property (the highest) would contribute $7,389 per year. 

Sylva (also serving Webster and Dillsboro) Current budget: $680,700

Tax rate required: 6 cents per $100 of home value

• A $190,200 property (the average in Sylva) would contribute $114 per year. 

• A $220,300 property (the average in Webster) would contribute $132 per year. 

• A $252,500 property (the average in Dillsboro) would contribute $152 per year.

• A $1 million property would contribute $600 per year. 

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