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Jackson considers five additional firefighting positions

Jackson considers five additional firefighting positions

During a May 11 work session, Jackson County commissioners discussed a plan to use $400,000 from the general fund — previously allocated to the Cullowhee Volunteer Fire Department — to fund personnel and per-call pay at five other fire departments in the county. 

Currently, the fire departments in Cashiers and Highlands rely on a fire tax levied on their local areas to fund operations, with the remaining six fire departments in Jackson County receiving a portion of $1 million the county reserves for their support. These departments rely on donations, grants and volunteer labor to cover their remaining expenses. 

But now commissioners are considering adopting a 2021-22 budget that would add a countywide property tax of 1 cent per $100 of value specifically for the Cullowhee fire department, which due to its central location provides mutual aid to every fire department in the county. The tax would generate enough revenue to cover the department’s $1 million budget request, with the bulk of those funds going to support eight paid firefighters at the department. Cullowhee is seeing increased call volume alongside a dwindling volunteer roster, leading Chief Tim Green to advocate for a paid force. 

The Cullowhee department currently commands $400,000 of the $1 million Jackson County allocates to the volunteer departments. Rather than cutting that $400,000 from the budget, commissioners are favoring a plan that would redistribute it among the five remaining departments that are not supported by a fire tax. These include the Little Canada, Balsam-Willets, Qualla, Savannah and Sylva volunteer fire departments. 

At commissioners’ request, County Manager Don Adams met with the chiefs of those five departments on April 26 to get their input as to how useful the $400,000 might be to them and what it would be best used for. 

“The five fire chiefs agreed that an additional administrative person at each fire house would greatly assist in their operations,” he said. 

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The estimated cost to pay salaries and benefits to five such employees would be $270,910, Adams said. He suggested allocating the remaining $129,090 in that $400,000 pot to offer volunteer firefighters per-call pay of $12 per call. He offered the $12 figure in order to make per-call pay universal countywide, as that’s the amount Cashiers currently offers. 

Adams also told commissioners that they should be prepared for additional funding requests from the fire departments over the next year. 

“As we were talking to the fire chiefs, it was becoming apparent that many of the departments have some expenses they feel are coming on them this coming year,” he said. “I believe there’s a lot of air packs and bottles that are needing replacement, and they’re all coming at the same time.”

Much of the equipment was purchased about a decade ago using a FEMA grant, said Chairman Brian McMahan, who is also a volunteer firefighter. The gear allows firefighters to breath in otherwise unsurvivable situations, so it must be guaranteed to work — thus departments must retire equipment that has reached a certain age.

Adams suggested that commissioners plan on spending up to $50,000 per department — $250,000 total — to match other potential funding sources for personal protective equipment. The county has a healthy fund balance level, so the money could be appropriated from that account at a later date when the departments are ready to submit their requests. 

“If we could get them on a grant again and cost share, then it makes it much more achievable, and if we could partner together and buy in bulk and replace several departments together out of the same purchase, it could mean we get a cheaper price by negotiating that in bulk,” said McMahan. 

As the discussion about fire funding wraps up for this budget year, McMahan is asking county staff to start researching potential funding issues at the rescue squads and opportunities for the county to assist with those issues. 

“I think that they also suffer from some of the same problems that the fire departments suffer from as far as recruitment and retention,” he said. 

Adams presented his recommended budget for 2021-22 during the board’s May 18 meeting, which occurred after press time. Commissioners are scheduled to hear additional budget presentations and requests during a slate of work sessions beginning at 8:30 a.m. May 24, 25 and 26, in the Burrell Building at Southwestern Community College. The May 26 meeting may be canceled depending on the need for additional discussion at that time. 

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