Town tweaking FY ‘19-20’ budget; considering fire tax increase

The Town of Highlands budget deliberations for FY 2019-20’ is wrapping up. The final word will come Thursday night at the Town Board meeting and then a public hearing will be set for the June meeting before the final version of the budget is passed.

Since March, requested/needed capital items from each department have been considered. Across departments, requests ranged from vehicles to capital items particularly in the water/sewer departments.

Each year, paving tops the list in the Street Department and each year Public Works Director Lamar Nix is asked to prioritize the paving projects. Usually a couple are put on the back burner for the next fiscal year.

However, this year, all four suggested paving projects will likely make the cut for a total expenditure of $620,000.

“We continue to get complaints about there being potholes everywhere,” said Town Manager Josh Ward. “32 tons of patch was used over the last few months to fill them, but it’s just not a permanent fix. Patching and paving two roads on the list [Satulah and 1.1 miles of Cullasaja Drive] just isn’t enough.”

Though originally two of the roads, Oak Lane and Hickory Hill Road were red-lined – meaning they might not make the capital needs list for FY 2019-20’ – Ward made it clear they need to be included.

Another red-lined item – Ground Penetrating Radar – in the MIS/GIS Department, will likely be included at a cost of $30,000. Ward said this is a piece of equipment the town can use across departments, specifically in the water/sewer departments where the radar will show a picture of existing lines throughout town.

In the Electric Department, two reconductor projects were listed – one on a portion of US 64 east and one on a portion of Horsecove Road. This involves getting rid of copper lines – something the town has been doing due to upkeep. At first the Horsecove Road portion at a cost of $91,000 was red-lined but it may make the cut after all. That’s two projects in the Electric Department totaling $238,000.

Before the deletions of red-lined items, the total on the Capital Needs list is $3.23 million. If the items red-lined are cut, then the total would be $2.8 million. But after last Thursday’s budget meeting it looks like everything on the list will be financed.

As far as fee increases go for residents and businesses, since the the water/sewer and sanitation enterprise funds/departments are in the red, it looks like those rates will each increase by a couple of dollars per month. The final figure will be decided tonight at the Town Board meeting at 7 in the Community Building.

The biggest increase fee/tax-wise may be the fire tax which has been stable for several years. It is currently the lowest in the county at one cent per $100 property valuation. The assessed property valuation for Highlands and Highlands Township is currently $3,504,725,216.

Fire taxes across the county range from 1 cent (Highlands) to 12 ½ cent per $100 valuation.

Commissioners are proposing increasing it to three cents per $100 valuation. The fire department runs purely on proceeds from the fire tax. 

Though the department’s operating budget for FY 2019-20’ is only $435,000 proceeds from the proposed fire tax increase would be used to finance the new fire department building whether on the current site or on a new piece of property. Obviously procurring property would increase the cost of the project substantially.

Turns out the existing parcel isn’t big enough for a new or renovated building which needs to include residential units for more full-time firemen. Fire Chief Ryan Gearhart said 24/7 fire protection would lower insurance rates and eventually taxes.

In addition, where the department would operate and store trucks and equipment if the current building is razed or renovated is a big question.

According to MC Emergency Services Director Warren Cabe, the trucks need to be stored in climate-controlled units. Staff said they can’t find any climate-controlled units big enough for fire trucks.

So, now there is talk of acquiring a piece of property and constructing a new fire department building. In that case, the old one will be used until the new building is ready.

A 3-cent per $100 valuation fire tax would net the department $1,080,389 per year which would give it enough money to acquire property, build the building and pay down the estimated $4 million loan. 

The 2018-’19 1-cent per $100/valuation netted the dept.  $414,000

BB&T has offered a 15-year loan. At 4%, payments would be $360,000 a year.

An explanation for the proposed fire tax increase will be discussed at a public forum at 6p.m. on May 21, at the Civic Center in the Arts & Crafts Room, 600 North 4th Street, Highlands. Plans for the new building will also be displayed.

By Kim Lewicki, Highlands Newspaper

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