Fire departments are currently funded through the county. Commissioners explored the idea of ending the direct subsidies and putting each fire department in charge of raising what it needs through its own special fire tax.
The county floated the idea last year, but the response from fire departments was lukewarm.
“I think without unanimous support from the fire department,s it is going to be difficult for this to pass,” County Manager Chuck Wooten said. Only two departments supported it, two were against it, and three declined to take a public position.
The majority of county commissioners weren’t too hot on the idea either.
“I also sensed there is concern among commissioners that in at least five of the seven districts, this would result in a tax increase, and I sense that was not palatable to the group as a whole,” Wooten said during a discussion of the issue at a county meeting last month.
Commissioners decided to indefinitely table the proposal.
The switch would have resulted in a new property tax for county residents — with each fire department setting its own property tax rate to be levied within its service area.
Meanwhile, the county would presumably lower property taxes on its end, since it no longer would have the burden of funding fire departments directly out of county coffers.
But that wouldn’t make it a wash.
For most residents, the savings on their county tax bill wouldn’t be enough to make up for the newly imposed local fire tax.
That’s because property owners in Cashiers are currently subsidizing fire departments elsewhere in the county — simply by virtue of higher property values there. Cashiers residents pay proportionally more in property taxes, because the tax revenue collected on a million dollar home is more than the county collects on a $250,000 home.
While Cashiers residents are paying in to the system more than they get back, the other fire departments benefit from the collective funding formula.
Wooten had advocated switching to local fire taxes, calling it a more equitable system. That system is used by the majority of counties in North Carolina.
Wooten acknowledged it would have effectively resulted in a tax increase for the majority of residents but said he preferred the term “tax modification” instead of a “tax increase.”
The county currently spends $1.428 million annually to fund the fire departments. Each gets an operating budget and one full-time paid staffer. New equipment, new trucks or fire station construction projects are funded separately on an as-needed basis per county commissioner approval.