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Fire districts, school repairs
 could ratchet up tax rates

Although Henderson County Manager Steve Wyatt presented a budget last week funded by a revenue neutral tax rate, commissioners still face a leftover stack of spending requests from schools and Blue Ridge Community College and rural fire departments are seeking budget increases of at least 10 percent.

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The result likely will mean a tax increase for many homeowners and businesses by the time the Board of Commissioners adopts a budget for the fiscal year beginning July 1.
The rising cost of personnel, equipment and in some cases new fire stations is driving up the cost of fire protection and first responder service. Like the Board of Commissioners, fire chiefs and their department’s governing boards made requests to fund operations, debt service and capital over four years, aligning with the county’s revaluation cycle.
The reassessment of real property countywide resulted in new values 16 percent higher. That means that taxpayers in the four fire districts that plan to keep their rate level could see a tax increase based on higher values. Eight other departments, though, have asked the county to authorize a tax rate increase ranging from a half-cent to 2 cents per $100 valuation. Their budgets will rise, too, if their requests are granted. All but one fire district is asking for an increase of at least 10 percent and seven out of 12 would see their budget climb by more than 20 percent.
The county Fire Rescue Advisory Committee heard budget presentations from fire chiefs on Tuesday; FRAC was scheduled to send its recommendation to commissioners by Wednesday morning.
Usually, commissioners make no changes to the budgets and fire tax rates sent up from the officials who have expertise in fire coverage and first responder service.
“Certainly the Fire and Rescue Advisory Committee does spend a lot of time within their own network looking at the budget,” County Commission Chair Grady Hawkins said. “I think the one big outstanding thing that is becoming more and more prevalent is there are not volunteers to man 24-hour fire departments. What you see is personnel cost that’s an exorbitant expense. They’re so many other things that young people do these days, they just don’t make themselves available to volunteer and those that volunteer, unlike 30-40 years ago when you could cut the tractor off and go fight a fire, the labor force just doesn’t lend itself to that.”
Mills River Fire Chief Rick Livingston is seeking an increase of 2 cents in his district’s tax rate to finance a new fire station and new fire trucks.
“We’re trying to build a new main station,” he said. “We bought the property several years ago (on N.C. 280), it’s almost paid for. We’ve got several aging apparatus that need to be replaced. We’ve got staffing issues that we need to address. Long story short, industrial and commercial growth in Mills River has been No. 1 in the county for several years running. We lead the way when it comes to commercial and industrial.”
Livingston’s department covers the Ferncliff and Broadmoor industrial parks, home to large factories employing hundreds of people.
“That represents a challenge to the fire department in that we have to keep up with that growth in the services that we provide,” he said.
When it comes to the fire service, a lot of people don’t appreciate that the big red or yellow trucks roll to nearly all emergencies, whether it’s a car crash, heart attack or even a lost hiker.
“Three fourths of the calls that we respond to are emergency medical first responder type calls where we assist Henderson County EMS,” Livingston said. The rural fire trucks often are the first to arrive because they have sited stations to reach most of their district quickly.

BRCC, schools seek repair money

If commissioners devote little time to the fire tax rates, they’re likely to be consumed by the requests from BRCC and the county school system for major repairs and renovation. Wyatt recommended a tax rate of 51.1 cents per $100 valuation, down a nickel from the current rate of 56.5 cents. The lower rate may not survive this week’s budget work.
“We’d like to keep the tax rate at or below what it currently is and yet meet over a 4- or 10-year time frame some of the capital requests and renovations and repairs the schools and BRCC have asked for,” Hawkins said. “If you look at the renovations and repairs in the multi-million budgets Blue Ridge Community College and public schools have asked for, you can’t do that on a revenue neutral basis.”
Wyatt’s recommended budget held county operations at current levels and increased school operating budget by $2.8 million. But it left on the table $9.2 million worth of repair and renovation requests from the school system and BRCC. County administrators have presented commissioners with several options for funding the work over the next four years.
“During your budget deliberations, you will decide how and when those projects will be undertaken,” Wyatt told commissioners in his budget message. “Those decisions will be the crux of your work to finalize this budget.”

$441,000 recommended for nonprofits


Wyatt recommended $441,000 worth of grants to nonprofits. Those included the Arts Council, $1,301; Boy Scouts, $2,500; Flat Rock Playhouse, $7,032; Blue Ridge Literacy Council, $10,000; Boys & Girls Club, $10,000; Children & Family Resource Center, $17,340; Council on Aging,$36,075; Free Clinics, $27,645; Housing Assistance Corp., $11,750; Mediation Center, $10,500; Medical Loan Closet, $4,500; Only Hope WNC, $18,000; Pisgah Legal Services, $35,000; Safelight, $47,500; St. Gerard House, $50,000; United Way 211 program, $10,000; Vocational Solutions, $41,625; Vocational Solutions roofing match, $50,000; WCCA Medical Trtansport, $11,100; WCCA Community Transportation, $38,905. Unfunded requests included $374,000 from First Contact Ministries, $20,000 from Interfaith Assistance Ministry and $4,500 from Project Dignity WNC.

This is a developing story. County commissioners are working in a budget-drafting session on Wednesday to finalize numerous spending decisions. Return to the Lightning for more.