Ahead of approving a budget for the upcoming fiscal year, the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners will carefully consider tax increase requests from 12 of the County’s 20 Fire Districts. The increase proposals range from 0.8-cents to 5.5-cents and would represent about $2.5 million in new revenues. For the current Fiscal Year 2018 budget, the County’s Fire Districts receive a combined $25 million. While Fire Districts are not part of the General Fund, for comparison, this equates to approximately 8 percent of the County’s operating budget. The proposed budget for Fiscal Year 2019 would give Fire Districts $29 million, or 9 percent.
Districts cite growing service needs
As populations in towns and communities countywide continue to grow, so does the volume of calls for emergency services. According to documents from the Black Mountain/East Buncombe Fire District, it has experienced an 8 percent increase in calls for services from 2016 to 2017. Meanwhile, the French Broad Fire District notes, in documents provided to Commissioners, it hasn’t been able to provide wage increases since 2012 and its salaries and benefit packages aren’t competitive. In fact, the French Broad Fire District says the Department has lost seven full-time employees in the last two years due to lack of competitive wages. Many Fire Districts are seeking to bring salaries in line with State averages so that staff are competitively paid. Specifically, Swannanoa Fire Chief Anthony Penland says he needs to increase salaries to help prevent his staff from leaving the district in search of better pay in neighboring districts.
Other fire districts are citing a variety of reasons for the requested tax increases such as bolstering salaries, adding new full-time positions, construction of new substations, upgrading outdated gear, and other needs related to ensuring the safety of our community.
During a work session on Tuesday, May 8, the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners questioned if the Fire Districts are pursuing federal, state, and other grant funds to support equipment replacements and upgrades. Fire District representatives said they do their best to exhaust those opportunities, but told Commissioners the application process is highly competitive. For example, the Upper Hominy Fire District was only able to successfully secure outside resources after applying eight years in a row.
One thing is clear after the Fire District presentations, salaries for fire fighters in our community lag behind the average rate in North Carolina.
Fire District tax rates are based on $100 of assessed property. Meaning, if your home is valued at $200,000 and your Fire District’s tax rate is $0.17; you would pay $340 annually in Fire District taxes. Any approved tax increases would go into effect on July 1, 2018.
Commissioners looking to offer support beyond finances
Historically, Fire Districts have increased tax rates at varying frequencies. Riceville Fire Chief Thad Lewin noted that his Fire District’s last requested increase occurred 26 years ago, while other districts have had increases as recently as 2017. Nearly all Fire Districts received increased revenues from maintaining a tax rate above the revenue neutral rate in 2018.
Beyond the requests for higher tax rates, Commissioners would also like to lend their support to all Fire Districts via financial planning services to help with capital projects, salary structures, and overall financial planning from County staff to help effectively craft yearlong budgets. Commissioners have also asked for all Fire Districts to outline how they will be informing the community of the proposed tax increases, why the increases are necessary, and provide other platforms to engage with their respective communities concerning a potential raise in taxes.
For more information, see the below table with a list of tax increase requests and you can also view County staff’s presentation to the Commissioners at the Buncombe County website.
The Board of Commissioners has until June 30, 2018 to approve the budget. The public is invited to weigh in on the overall budget during the Commissioners’ formal meeting on Tuesday, June 5, at 5 p.m. at 200 College St., Room 326.