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Jackson commissioners weigh fire funding

Fire trucks parked in the Cullowhee Volunteer Fire Department’s new station await the call. Donated photo Fire trucks parked in the Cullowhee Volunteer Fire Department’s new station await the call. Donated photo

Jackson County leaders are considering adding a penny to the county’s tax rate to fund the Cullowhee Volunteer Fire Department’s request for eight full-time employees.

Chief Tim Green first made his case to commissioners during a March 11 work session, saying that his department receives an average of 2.5 calls a day but has a longer-than-optimal response time due to its reliance on volunteers, who might be a significant distance away from the scene when those calls come in. Adding to the issue is the department’s ongoing struggle to recruit enough newer, younger volunteers to protect the community.

Last month, Green asked commissioners to consider levying a fire tax on the Cullowhee district to fund the department’s $1.25 million budget request, which would allow it to employ a paid firefighting force. However, due to the lower property values in Cullowhee and the fact that Western Carolina University is exempt from property taxes, an exceptionally high fire tax rate would be required to cover that cost. Meanwhile, a single penny per $100 of value countywide would meet the request.

During an April 13 work session, commissioners said it made sense to fund the department based on countywide tax receipts because the Cullowhee department is critical to countywide fire protection. Jackson County’s fire departments are small, and they rely on help from each other to adequately respond to calls. Cullowhee’s central location makes it especially important within that network.

“They provide mutual aid to every department, so having Cullowhee is essential for all the other departments to be able to have their (fire) ratings lower,” said Chairman Brian McMahan, who is also a volunteer firefighter.

Currently, fire taxes specific to Cashiers and Highlands fund operations in those departments. The county reserves $1 million in its budget to split between the remaining six departments, $400,000 of which goes to Cullowhee.

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If commissioners decide to reserve a penny on the tax rate for Cullowhee’s exclusive use, the next question is what they should do with the $400,000 freed up in the budget for the remaining departments. Commissioners could return that money to the general fund and fund the five smaller departments with the remaining $600,000, or they could keep the budget at $1 million and increase allocations to the other departments.

County Manager Don Adams presented commissioners with three options for distributing the $400,000, should they choose to use the money for fire funding. He suggested they distribute them using a formula that weights the departments according to the number of substations they have, according to their five-year call average, or a mixture of the two.

However, Adams stressed that the April 13 conversation was preliminary and that he’d planned a meeting with the five fire chiefs to talk about how the money might be best used. Commissioners will likely discuss the issue further at their May 11 work session.

Commissioners also discussed various other budget requests April 13. County departments have requested a total increase of $970,000 for personnel. Most of that money would go toward reclassifications or increased hours at existing positions, but the list also includes four new positions: a general utility worker in the grounds department; an investigator/detective and a processing agent in the sheriff’s office; a detention officer in the jail; and a part-time garage employee.

Additionally, commissioners received $2.6 million in capital outlay requests from county departments. These include computers, vehicle replacements and recreation equipment, with a $239,000 ambulance purchase request by far the highest-dollar item on the five-page list.

During their April 20 meeting, the board approved a request presented April 13 in conjunction with the budget discussion — medical and dental insurance rates for the coming year.  The newly adopted rates represent a 3 percent increase in the county’s contribution, but employees will not see any change to premiums or coverage.

Also at issue are the results of the 2021 property revaluation, which delivered a 12.1 percent increase in countywide value compared to the current fiscal year, the last to use 2016 valuations. During a March 11 work session, which took place before the present discussion about funding for the Cullowhee Fire Department, Finance Director Darlene Fox recommended that commissioners consider lowering the tax rate from 38 to 34.47 cents per $100 in the upcoming budget. This number would allow for a revenue-neutral levy plus an additional 1.7 percent to account for average cost increases.

Commissioners are scheduled to discuss funding for capital projects and receive updates on new budget requests during their work session at 1 p.m. Tuesday, May 11, and to hear Adams’ recommended budget at 6 p.m. Tuesday, May 18. Special-called budget work sessions and presentations may be called May 24-26, and the 2021-22 budget is scheduled for formal adoption at 1 p.m. Tuesday, June 15.

Leave a comment

1 comment

  • Nationwide only ~4% of fire dept calls are "Fires"
    Over 80% is Medical, yet over 90% of the average fire dept
    budget goes towards "Fire" equipment.

    And YES...I know fire trucks/equipment is $$$(I was a firefighter
    for years)
    Also the county has LITTLE control over how a fire dept. spends
    it's money as they(fire dept) are NOT a county agency!
    They are independent with little or NO Tax Payer

    posted by Thomas

    Sunday, 05/02/2021

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