At recent budget discussions for the Fiscal Year 2019-2020 budget both the Highlands Fire and Rescue and the Sky Valley-Scaly Mountain Fire and Rescue departments have come before the Macon County Board of Commissioners requesting fire tax increases. This is the first no-revenue neutral rate increase the departments have requested since 1999 when the fire tax was first approved.
One week before commissioners are expected to vote on the budget – Tuesday, June 11 – Ryan Gearhart, chief of the Highlands Fire and Rescue, presented his department’s proposal to raise the fire tax rate to help fund the purchase of property and the construction of a new fire station for Highlands. The department is requesting a fire tax increase from 0.0108 to 0.03 cents tax per $100 valuation to pay for the property and new station. Even with the increase, the Highlands fire tax is still the lowest in Macon County.
A three-cent per $100 valuation fire tax would net the department $1,080,389 per year which would give it enough money to acquire property and build the building. Property cost for the new station will be the major expense for the new station as the property costs inside the town limits are at a premium.
According to Town Manager Josh Ward, the town is very close to signing a contract on property in the town limits that would be well suited for the new station. Gearhart stated the department’s goal is to purchase the property and build the new station at a cost not exceeding $5.5 million based on a 15-year loan with just slightly over three percent interest.
Gearhart expects the new station will meets the needs for the department for a long time with construction of a building with a life expectancy of 50 years and the purchase of land that would be large enough for future expansion.
With the new station, the department is hoping to have 24-hour staffing. Due to limited size, the current fire station is not feasible to house firefighters for 24-hour shifts. Gearhart said 24/7 fire protection would help to improve response time, lower insurance rates and eventually taxes.
While the tax increase is expected to cover the cost of the property and construction of the new station, an additional tax increase for employment purposes may be needed upon completion of the new station. Currently, the department has two full-time employees who work from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday, not including off-hour volunteer responses.
The fire department held a well-publicized public hearing for the proposed tax increase; however, no one from the public for or against the tax increase showed up for the meeting. Only seven people attended the public hearing all of which were fire department, town and county staff. The fire tax increase has the support of the Highlands Board of Commissioners who recently voted unanimously to approve the increase.
The department also considered expanding the current fire station however, this proposal isn’t realistic as the site is landlocked and not large enough to build a station with housing for firefighters. In addition, renovating the current fire station would requiring storing the fire trucks which must be stored in a climate-controlled facility. There is not such facility available in Highlands and building a storage facility to house the fire trucks during the construction would not be a feasible option.
On behalf of the Sky Valley-Scaly Mountain Volunteer Fire and Rescue Department, Fire Chief Tommy James came before the commissioners at last week’s continued meeting to request a fire tax increase. The organization is requesting an increase from 0.0486 to 0.0586 which is $10 per $100,000 valuation. The tax increase is expected to yield approximately $94,752 or 65 percent of the tax year total.
James said the department has been running deficit budgets for several years and is seriously in need of paid hours for secretarial and maintenance work. The department’s initial plan is to hire and pay for approximately 2,000 hours of work per year with 1,000 hours of secretarial work at $15 per hour and approximately 1,000 hours of maintenance work at $20 totaling approximately $35,000 a year.
The Sky Valley-Scaly Mountain Volunteer Fire and Rescue Department provides fire protection, first-responder medical assistance and other fire and rescue services for persons and property in the general vicinity of the City of Sky Valley in Rabun County, GA, and the Scaly Mountain community in Macon County, NC, collectively known as the Sky Valley-Scaly Mountain Fire Protection area. The fire department provides these services contractually to Macon County and the City of Sky Valley and Rabun County as an affiliate of the Rabun County Fire Service.
The department operates two stations one in Sky Valley and one in Scaly Mountain. Apparatus from both or either station responds to emergencies as needed with no regard to state line. Neither community has the personnel or financial resources to provide the chartered services alone, and operating expenses are shared equally by the two jurisdictions.
The department’s current and only debt is for a 15-year lease for the purchase of the new Scaly Mountain Station located at 169 Hale Ridge Road. As of March 2019, the principal balance on the contract which the department has been paying on for nine years is $646,386. Monthly payments on the station are $9,333.18 at a fixed interest rate of 3.69 percent.
In November, the fire department mailed its newsletter to every property owner in each fire district explaining the need for increased revenue and the requested amount and rate. The Sky Valley City Council approved the increase.
In the Scaly Mountain mailings, a ballot was enclosed to enable each property owner to vote for or against the requested tax increase. Over 100 ballots were returned in favor of the tax increase and three were returned against the increase.
The fire tax increases for both departments will be included in the final proposed budget discussion. It’s likely they will be approved.
Commissioners will hold a public hearing for the proposed budget on Tuesday, June 11 at the Macon County Courthouse. The board is expected to vote on the proposed budget following the public hearing.