Cashiers residents support fire department, question fairness of proposed fire tax
A public hearing to get Cashiers’ take on a proposed fire tax for the area drew about 70 people to the Cashiers-Glenville Recreation Center. Judging by the 10 speakers who said their piece to the Jackson County Commissioners, one opinion is fairly unanimous among Cashiers taxpayers: the Cashiers Fire Department needs more revenue.
“Minutes can mean the difference in life and death, and improving the response time is very, very important,” said Milton Stork, a Cashiers resident and business owner.
Nobody took issue with that statement. What they disagreed on was the fairest way to make it happen. They especially disliked the fact that the proposal, as it stands now, means the fire department would lose the $200,100 allocation it currently receives from the county if a tax were levied. Meanwhile, other fire districts in the county — which are not pursuing a tax at this time — would continue receiving allocations of $130,000 to $172,000 to supplement their operating budgets.
“I don’t really think it’s fair to take our $200,000 appropriation, take it back and put the tax on us through double taxation,” Steven Foster told commissioners. “I don’t think really that’s where we want to go.”
Some residents were especially sour on the idea when considering that most of the county’s budget comes from Cashiers anyway, due to the fact that property values are higher there and so a larger percentage of the county’s property tax is paid by residents of the community.
“Most of the [county’s] money come from up here and it goes down [the mountain], said Cashiers resident Stuart Foster. “We’ve got a lot of expensive houses up here, but the $200,000 should stay in Cashiers township. If we’re paying that plus the extra, that is still our money, and that is just the way I feel.”
A cash-strapped department
As the fire department’s fire call volume has gone up — from 488 in 2012 to 627 in 2014 — its volunteer force has gone down. The economy is recovering, and more of the volunteers have regular full-time jobs than was the case a few years ago. Regular work means they can’t leave multiple times a week to respond to daytime calls, and because housing is so expensive in Cashiers, most of the volunteers live some distance away from the community’s center, increasing response time during nighttime calls. The department needs to start paying full-time firefighters to man the station at all times, Chief Randy Dillard told the audience. And it also needs to have money to replace equipment that is, in some cases, dangerously old.
“It’s just got to the point of being overwhelming. There’s no way we can keep going like we’re doing now,” Dillard told the crowd. “If another recession were to hit and our donations dropped like they did last time, something pretty drastic would have to happen.”
The proposal? To levy a fire tax on the area Dillard’s department serves, setting the rate to whatever would be necessary to meet his budget needs — likely about 2 cents per $100 of property value. Meanwhile, a portion of Jackson County that’s closer to Macon County’s Highlands fire station would be split off from Dillard’s district and charged a tax equal to the amount that Macon levies on the Highlands area, 0.9 cents per $100 of property value, likely to rise to 1 cent per $100 once Macon completes its revaluation process.
Currently, the county gives Macon $7,090 each year to offset the cost of fire protection for Jackson County land near Highlands and $200,100 annually to the Cashiers-Glenville Fire Department, which raises the rest of its budget through grants and donations. The tax, if adopted, would replace those contributions.
If the tax passed, Dillard said, home insurance rates would go down, the fire department would no longer compete with schools and nonprofits for local grants and firefighters would no longer hold up traffic with their yearly fundraising drive.
“We will not stand in the intersection and bother you on Memorial Day weekend, I can promise you that,” he said.
That’s all well and good, said many of those who spoke to commissioners last week, but losing the $200,000 allocation is something of a sticking point.
“What bothers me the most is we are giving up $200,000 that we had been getting — and Randy [Dillard] gave it up, I understand why — but that doesn’t mean that we want to give it up in our community,” said Marva Jennings, a native of the area. “I would like to see that money stay here in this community.”
Some people said they’d like to see that $200,000 used to support the rescue squad, EMS or Blue Ridge School. Others said they thought it should stay with the fire department and be used to reduce the tax rate needed to meet the department’s budget needs.
“I would just ask you to think about it as you go forth and make the decision,” said Glenville resident Carolyn Franz.
Dillard, however, urged residents not to derail the fire tax due to concern over the $200,000.
“We cannot give up this option for that money,” he said. “This is the end of the line for us. If this doesn’t go and we get another recession, things would go downhill pretty rapidly.”
Investing in Cashiers
Riding back to Sylva after the meeting, County Manager Chuck Wooten said that Jackson County is indeed planning to invest in Cashiers over the coming fiscal year but that making a county budget isn’t a one-to-one recipe in which a $200,000 savings in one area spells surplus for another. The county has a lot of needs and only so much revenue, he said, and it has to base its funding decisions on factors other than which community pays the biggest tax bill.
“Allocations are not considered based upon the revenue generated in a particular township or community,” he said in a follow-up email. “Rather, allocations are considered based upon the programs offered to the citizens of the county as a whole.”
Wooten sent out a list of new spending in Cashiers over the past month or planned for the upcoming budget year — among others, items included $26,000 of increases to Glenville-Cashiers EMS and rescue squad, $145,000 for an addition to the library and $150,000 for renovations to the Cashiers office of Inspections and Code Enforcement. The total value of the list is $370,000.
“I would suggest that Jackson County is re-investing $1.82 in the Cashiers community for every $1 reduction in the Cashiers-Glenville Fire Department,” he wrote.
Not a steady tax
Be that as it may, Cashiers residents were concerned that ratio might not remain constant. The fire tax rate would not be set in stone — rather, it would be reevaluated each year depending on the fire department’s budgetary needs. With a county revaluation looming that is expected to yield a reduced overall value — and, therefore, higher tax rates in order to keep the county’s budget revenue-neutral — some residents were afraid that any fire tax approved this year could skyrocket the next.
“This 2-cent tax is probably going to be a 4-cent tax,” resident Ray Trine told commissioners.
According to Cashiers native Conda McCall, that’s something a lot of people can’t afford.
“There are a lot of sick people and a lot of elderly in the community, a lot of people without jobs,” she said. “An additional tax would be burdensome to a lot of those people.”
The question will be up to commissioners to vote on, likely at their May 21 meeting. But the representatives’ ears are open till then, with opportunities for residents to comment at the May 7 and 21 meetings and May 19 work session — with written comments accepted as well — before the vote occurs.
Regardless of which way the vote goes, though, one thing is true, resident Edward Morris said.
“When you scratch a fireman, whether he’s in blue or white, you scratch a hero,” Morris said. “When everything breaks loose, there’s one group of men that come to help you, no matter what it is. That’s the firemen.”