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Wednesday, 01 February 2017 15:33

Lake Junaluska fire district in the works

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The recent addition of eight full-time firefighters to the town of Waynesville — at a cost of $530,000 per year — required a 4.75 cents per $100 property valuation tax increase last June.

As Waynesville officials searched for ways to make those hires more financially sustainable, they were again reminded of the widespread inequality in what residents pay for fire protection, something they now seek to address.

About 10 cents per $100 property valuation is added to property tax bills in Waynesville for fire protection; property owners outside the town are assigned to fire districts, where they pay from 6 cents to 11 cents for every $100 in assessed property value.

Residents of the Lake Junaluska Assembly, however, have probably the best deal, aside from a few homeowners outside town limits who paid nothing at all, due to clerical errors or omissions. 

For years, residents at Lake Junaluska paid a flat fee of just $4 a month per water connection for fire protection from the town. 

“It was kind of an unfair playing ground,” said Waynesville Fire Department Chief Joey Webb. “You’ve got some people who were paying $4 per month on their water bill — it doesn’t matter if you’ve got a $100,000 house, or a $500,000 house — you were paying $48 per year. What we’re trying to do is make it fair for everybody.”

Waynesville Mayor Gavin Brown said that $48 per year amounted to “about $50,000 a year over the last, say, seven or eight or nine or 10 years.” 

At a June 7, 2016, board of aldermen meeting — right around the time the budget impact of the new firefighters was being debated — Brown and the board doubled that fee to $8 per month, resulting in approximately $51,000 in additional revenue — still a deal, considering the relatively high assessed values of many properties at the assembly. 

A resident of Lake Junaluska paying a flat $8 per month is equivalent to what a Waynesville property owner pays on a property assessed at $96,000. 

“That is not a proportionately fair amount for those residents to be paying,” Brown said. “I’m not asking them to repay us, I’m just simply saying going forward they should pay more.”

Brown made good on his pledge to introduce some equity into the equation Jan. 10 when the board unanimously passed a resolution calling on the Haywood County Board of Commissioners to create a fire service district encompassing the assembly as well as the Reinhart, Knollwood and Shingle Cove subdivisions.

Only county commissioners have the power to create such a district.

Chief among the aims of the resolution is that moving forward, that $8 fee will become instead a fee based on a percentage of assessed value of the property, similar to other districts. 

“It’s still not necessarily proportionately the same as somebody in Waynesville would pay, or the south Waynesville fire district, but it’s much more equitable than it’s been in the past,” Brown said. 

The town estimates that a 6 cents per $100 property valuation in the proposed Lake Junaluska fire district, would gross an additional $100,000 per year, bringing the total contribution from Junaluska residents from around $50,000 per year in early 2016 to around $200,000 per year beginning July 1, 2017. 

Brown admits it’s hard to envision opposition to the measure.

“I don’t see any argument against it whatsoever, other than some backhanded statement that, ‘Oh this is Waynesville trying to sneak through the back door what they couldn’t do through the front door, i.e. annexation [of Lake Junaluska],” he said. “And of course that in and of itself is just simply not on the table anymore (see story, p. 4). The assembly had made their announcement publicly, back in October, that they’re going forward on their own, and we are not going to actively seek any annexation. It was always them asking us. So it is not an effort to do that whatsoever.”

There is one sticking point, however, that may need to be hammered out. 

Property taxes are collected on both improved and unimproved properties. Right now, Waynesville only receives revenue from Junaluska residents with a water meter. Once the district is created and begins billing as a percent of assessed value on property tax bills, owners of vacant lots would be paying for protection they probably don’t need. 

Chief Webb, who was recently named “Career Chief of the Year” by the Western North Carolina State Firefighters’ Association, stressed that how ever it ends up shaking out, it’s not a quality (or quantity) of service issue for the department, which protects $1.9 billion in property — it’s an equality issue. 

“This doesn’t change anybody’s fire protection. We just want to make it fair and equitable for everybody,” he said. “It’s not fair for some people to pay 6 cents per hundred if they have a $500,000 house, and another person with a $500,000 house paying $96 per year. It’s just a matter of doing the right thing.”

Based on that, Brown thinks commissioners will be receptive to Waynesville’s request to create the new district as municipal budget season begins.

“I think if you look at it from just rational discussion, I would think that they would favorably approve it. In light of the fact that almost every other area in the county is either in a fire district or in a municipality, it seems somewhat ironic that Lake Junaluska is not,” he said. “And it’s only because we’ve been providing them the protection for a lot less. Should we have done that years ago? Maybe. Is this an opportune time to do it? Hopefully.”

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