“This will be a good example,” said Chairman Brian McMahan. “We’ll establish two, and I think it will be a good example to look to as we think about what we might want to do later on.”
Public hearings — dates to be determined — will gather input from Jackson County residents served by the Cashiers and Highlands stations. Though Highlands is in Macon County, some parts of Jackson County are more easily accessible by that station than by the closest Jackson County station. Every property owner living in the Jackson County side of the Cashiers-Highlands area will receive a mailed notice four weeks in advance of the hearing.
“Cashiers, they have put a lot of thought into this,” said Commissioner Boyce Dietz. “I was a fireman for 20 years. There’s a lot of variables in all this.”
Commissioners have been discussing the possibility of a fire tax for a few years, with the 2013 board even considering a referendum vote. Ultimately, they dropped the issue because only three of the county’s seven fire chiefs supported the idea. Commissioners didn’t feel that a new tax would stand a chance on the ballot if the chiefs weren’t all behind it.
In January, chiefs from the Cashiers and Cullowhee districts came to commissioners again, telling them about their aging equipment, growing response time and increased difficulty attracting volunteers. This time, commissioners said, why not consider instituting the tax in districts that asked for it while maintaining the status quo in the rest of the county?
The county already kicks in part of each district’s budget, somewhere between $130,000 and $200,000, depending on the district. Part of that pays for one full-time position for each district. However, the total budget for a fire district is much higher — the Sylva department, for instance, operates on $680,000 per year — and departments make up the difference through a combination of fundraising, grants, contributions from municipalities and fire protection payments from state and federal entities in the district. Right now, the plan is for the districts desiring to opt out to continue receiving their portion from the county while any district winding up with an approved fire tax would raise its total budget from a tax tacked onto the property tax its residents pay.
Though Cullowhee and Sylva — a district that also includes Dillsboro and Webster — have told the county they want in on the fire tax, commissioners decided they’re not quite ready to move forward with the process.
“I think there’s some additional homework for them to do in terms of getting a realistic budget together for operating expenses, and that will give them time to do that,” said Commissioner Vicki Greene.
For Cullowhee’s part, County Manager Chuck Wooten said, the variables are many and will take time to work out. There’s talk of opening a new substation at Bear Lake; right now, it’s not clear whether that substation will be built and what its operating cost might be. In addition, Wooten said, more time would allow greater opportunity to lobby the state for additional funds to pay for Cullowhee’s protection of Western Carolina University.
“We believe Cullowhee is unique in the fact that they are the only volunteer fire department in the state that is charged with providing fire protection for a $560 million dollar university,” Wooten wrote. “WCU really doesn’t have a say in how the funds are distributed since all state agencies pay into an insurance pool and then the N.C. Department of Insurance allocates the funds proportionately based on the percent of property value that you protect.”
But the biggest challenge for Cullowhee, Wooten said, is probably “coming to grips with the idea of increasing taxes by 5 or 6 cents when you have a general fund tax rate of 28 cents.”
Because the fire tax would be based on property value, communities with lower-value homes would wind up paying a higher tax rate than those with high-value homes.
To fund a budget just 60 percent the size of Cashiers’, Cullowhee residents would have to pay a tax rate three times higher. That’s because the average home in Cashiers is worth $472,900, while in Cullowhee the average is $208,500. The total value of property in the Cashiers district is $6.2 billion, compared to $1.2 billion in the Cullowhee district.
And as far as Sylva goes, Wooten said, the timeline is just too short to get it done this time around. The county didn’t start talking with the Sylva chief about this latest iteration of the tax concept until recently, so while he’s on board, the details still need work. The Sylva district is further complicated by the fact that the fire district is a department of the town of Sylva and also funded by Webster and Dillsboro, necessitating coordination between the towns, the fire department and the county.
County staff will spend the coming weeks getting down the specifics of the tax plan, finalizing any changes to the district lines and mailing notices to property owners sometime in late March.