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More firefighters needed, but is it worth a tax increase?

haywoodWaynesville leaders will face a big decision this budget year: whether to increase property taxes by 10 percent to pay for additional firefighters.

A plan proposed by Waynesville’s Interim Town Manager Mike Morgan would hire eight additional firefighters at an annual cost of $500,000. 

The town currently has only one paid fireman on shift at each of the two fire stations at any given time. The additional staffing would allow for two firemen on shift per station at all times.

But it couldn’t be done without a tax increase, according Finance Director Eddie Caldwell.

“When you’re talking about $500,000, I don’t think you could come up with it year after year after year,” Caldwell said. “Labor is our biggest expense, and we would be increasing services.”

The idea was floated by Morgan during a town budget workshop last week.

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Waynesville town board members didn’t indicate what they thought about the idea, apparently needing more time to absorb and digest the proposal.

“I am not sure where we are on this at all,” Mayor Gavin Brown said in an interview later. 

Brown said the town board hadn’t given Morgan a directive to include additional firefighters in the proposed budget. Brown said it was a valid proposal, however, and worthy of discussion, but it would be too soon to say how any of the five town board members feel about it.

“I think a strong case can be made for the notion that we really need additional firefighters,” Alderman Jon Feichter said. “Obviously nobody wants to see a tax increase, but we are kind of hamstrung in terms of our options.”

Feichter said he is still digesting the proposal, however, and will look to public input on the issue over the coming month.

Brown wonders if there may be lower-cost alternatives.

“There are mechanical things we have to examine,” Brown said.

For example, the Waynesville Fire Department provides service to an area outside the town limits. Those residents don’t pay town property taxes, but instead pay a fire tax. It seems logical the fire tax for those served by the town fire department but living outside town should also go up.

“These are the issues we are just now talking about,” Brown said.

The fire department’s total budget would go from $1.2 million to $1.7 million under the proposal.

To pay for it, Morgan proposed a property tax increase from the current rate of 44 cents per $100 of property value to 48.5 cents per $100 of property value.

On a $200,000 home, for example, town property taxes would go from $880 a year to $970 a year.

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