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Waynesville mulls adding eight firefighters

haywoodWaynesville town leaders will decide this month whether to raise property taxes to hire additional firefighters, and if so, by how much.

The town is considering a plan to add eight additional paid firefighters to its roster at a cost of $500,000 annually. The move would double the number of firefighters on shift at any given time from two to four.

Some aldermen are supportive of the plan.

“It is something that is necessary. I don’t think there is an option there,” Alderman LeRoy Roberson said. 

Alderman Jon Feichter agreed.

“I can say without a shadow of a doubt we need additional firefighters. The question becomes no one wants to raise taxes,” Feichter said. “The bottom line is the health and safety of our residents. I don’t want to jeopardize that in order to save a little bit of money.”

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It takes four firefighters on scene to enter a burning building, according to federal standards.

“Whenever there’s a fire, there has to be four people there — two to go inside and two to stay outside — before they can enter the building,” Roberson said.

The town has only two paid firefighters on shift at a time currently, relying on their stable of volunteers to make up the gap. But a decline in volunteer firefighters over the past decade — a trend playing out nationwide — has made it increasingly difficult to respond reliably and quickly with such a skeleton paid crew.

To cover the cost of the additional firefighters, Interim Town Manager Mike Morgan proposed a 10 percent property tax hike — from 44 cents to 48.5 cents per $100 of property value.

The town would have had another option at its disposal to help pay for the additional firefighters if it had gotten on the stick sooner. It could have raised the fire tax on those outside the town limits to help shoulder the burden.

“It hasn’t been raised in a number of years,” Roberson said. “They aren’t paying their fair share the way I look at it.”

The town’s fire district extends beyond its own town limits, providing fire protection for adjacent areas. Those outside the town limits don’t pay town taxes, but instead pay a special fire tax in exchange for the fire protection they get. The fire tax is tacked on to their county property tax bills and then remitted to the town.

“I expect there will be quite a bit of support in trying to spread the burden across everybody, not just town taxpayers,” Feichter agreed. “They are receiving the same services.”

However, it’s too late to increase the fire tax paid by those outside the town limits this year. Any changes to the fire tax rate have to be incorporated into the county’s budget. But the window to do so for this year has passed, leaving it up to residents inside the town limits to pay the full freight of the additional firefighters this year should town leaders proceed with the plan.

The fire tax is paid by those outside Waynesville’s town limits but inside its fire district are among the lowest in the county at just 6 cents per $100 of property value. The entire county is divvied up into fire districts, each with its own special fire tax to fund the fire department that serves their community. The average fire tax rate in the county is 7.5 cents, with some districts as high as 10 cents.

For those who live inside town limits, the cost of fire protection is rolled into their town property tax bill rather than a special fire tax.

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