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Jackson faces safety funding requests

Jackson faces safety funding requests

The Jackson County Commission is faced with several requests to fund safety operations throughout the county, totaling over $1.5 million. For taxpayers, this could mean over a penny on the tax rate.

“What I’d like to present in front of this board is what it would take if the board chose to follow through with these requests, in regard to taxes,” said County Manager Don Adams at the April 19 meeting of the county commission. 

In March, the Sylva Fire Department requested funding from the county  for paid personnel to bolster the roster of 33 volunteers and two fire coordinators already paid for by the county. 

“The thing about volunteers right now, there’s a lot of people that do it, but their employers pretty much got out of the mode of letting anybody leave to go to fires,” said Sylva fire chief Mike Beck at a March commissioners meeting. “Used to be, 20, 30 years ago it wasn’t a problem, now it is. That’s why a lot of people don’t volunteer at fire departments, they can’t. They’re not allowed to. We used to have a waiting list to get into the department, that’s not the case anymore. You have to go out and hunt people, and then you’re lucky if you get anybody.”

The total amount of funding requested from the county for the Sylva Fire Department is $1,171,728. That is $874,555 more than the county is currently funding. This would fund 12 new paid positions for the fire department. 

According to Adams, the total additional request equates to 0.7512, or a little over three quarters of a penny, under general fund taxation. 

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“Basically, if the board chose to raise general fund taxes to fund this, it would be three quarters of a penny,” said Adams. 

Another request came before the board in March from the Glenville-Cashiers Rescue Squad for funding to construct a substation on U.S. 64 East in Cashiers to meet the increased demand for services from the community. The request notes that a recent study by the ULI Advisory Service  found that the recent growth in the area, as well as increased tourism, are likely to continue.  

The estimated cost of the building is $4.5 million. An additional request of about $350,000 would reimburse the department for costs already expended for the project. 

The Glenville-Cashiers Rescue Squad also requested $289,000 in funding for staff raises. Jackson County contracts with Glenville-Cashiers Rescue Squad to provide EMS services to the southern end of the county. 

In addition to the Glenville-Cashiers Rescue Squad request, earlier this year the county commission approved pay increases for EMS at Harris Regional Hospital. 

The costs for pay increases, in addition to the Glenville-Cashiers Rescue Squad building request, financed at 4.5% over 20 years, minus money previously allocated for safety items, comes to an additional annual request of $723,275. According to Adams, this would cost taxpayers about 0.6212 cents, or less than one penny on the tax rate. 

If the county were to fully fund the requests from the Sylva Fire Department, Glenville-Cashiers Rescue Squad and the approved pay increases for EMS at Harris, in general fund taxes it would cost 1.3724 cents of the tax rate or $1,597,830. 

“It’s over a penny worth of requests that’s come before this board,” said Adams. “Now that is assuming this board wants to look at general fund taxation.”

Another possibility would be to levy a fire tax on the Sylva district to fund that fire department’s request. If the county decided to go this route, it would mean an 8.7-cent tax for the Sylva district. If the town were to stop funding its current portion of the Sylva Fire Department budget and the county funded its budget entirely through a service tax, that tax would increase to a 10.35-cent tax. 

“There are other ways to talk about funding this, there are multiple ways in regards to funding, I’m just giving you the initial thought about a general fund tax, and also a service district tax specific to the fire department,” said Adams. “There are other ways we can discuss service taxes and things of that nature, but I would need some direction from the board and discussion with the board.”

“This is one part of a bigger picture, so we’re going to have to sharpen our pencils and figure out, can we afford it? Is it something that is needed, can we afford it, and if we want to do it, can we make it happen this year?” said commission chairman Brian McMahan. 

The consensus among board members is that they would like to fund the requests from the Sylva Fire Department as well as Glenville-Cashiers Rescue Squad. The board decided that it would like to work towards incorporating the Sylva Fire Department request into the general fund, instead of levying a fire tax for the Sylva district. Commissioners are pursuing this avenue for funding in part because the Sylva Fire Department services people beyond its own district. 

The board will continue its discussion for funding safety requests at its May 3 commissioner meeting. 

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