By Beth Lawrence
The Cullowhee Volunteer Fire Department recently requested county commissioners establish Cullowhee as a fire tax district, which would fund a paid staff.
Chief Tim Green proposed the measure at the March 11 budget work session because CVFD finances and manpower are stretched thin.
“I, for one, don’t want my taxes to go up,” Green said. “It’s come the time that we’ve got to figure it out somehow or another. We need more funds. We’re hurting bad.”
Green presented a budget proposal that could be accomplished with two tax models: 10.35 cent or 12.5 cent per $100 valuation. Either rate would fund eight full-time firefighters with four on day shift and two each on nights and weekends.
Currently only Glenville-Cashiers has paid staff.
CVFD has one main department and three substations equipped with six fire engines, four tanker trucks, three brush trucks, one ladder truck, three service trucks, four additional vehicles and 34 volunteer firefighters, many of whom have served for more than 20 years.
“This growth in the department is based on the needs of the community,” Green said.
The county funds one paid employee per department. That person handles paperwork, coordinates training and takes care of other duties.
With a paid member onsite, the department can deploy a truck to a call in about two minutes. When no one is there, response time increases to 10 minutes.
“This is due to a member having to come from home or work,” Green said. “Eight minutes can mean a big difference between a life or death situation, the difference in losing the room, contents or the whole house.”
Cullowhee volunteers answered 4,944 calls for service between 2014 and 2019 amassing 24,820 man-hours, not including thousands of hours of training.
Adding to the department’s stress is a sharp decrease in the number of volunteers in the last several decades.
Full-time staff would also allow the department to respond to all medical calls; with one person onsite CVFD only responds to dire emergencies.
“To continue to serve the community in a fashion it deserves, we feel we have no other choice but to request approval for allowing us to receive a fire district tax,” Green said. “We understand the true financial magnitude the tax will have on our residents, and we are not making this request without our due diligence and extreme thoughtfulness.”
Volunteers may continue to serve, but paid staff would ease some of the burden on volunteers allowing them to take less time off work and away from family. It would also divide the duties at the station such as equipment maintenance.
One reason for the request is decreased donations over the years and lost grant monies.
CVFD missed out on some state grants requiring a 50/50 match because funds were not available.
As of March, the department’s county allocated funds are $2,500 to cover expenses until it receives its next allotment in April. The community account generated largely by donations holds $15,000. The department also uses interest from a $100,000 certificate of deposit willed to CVFD by a local family.
“We’re not broke, but it won’t take much more to break us,” Green said.
Trucks with excessive mileage, turnout gear needing replacement and the new larger firehouse requiring more maintenance also factor into the request.
Commissioners discussed several solutions.
Creating a taxed district requires the county to meet several criteria including submitting a report for public review and a public hearing.
Commissioners could allocate more county dollars to Cullowhee.
A rural fire protection district could be created requiring a petition signed by 35 percent of the residents and property owners in that district and a referendum on the issue.
At the commissioners’ March 16 regular meeting, the board discussed establishing a district, but was reluctant to move forward.
“I don’t think establishing a fire tax district with somewhere between 10 and 12 cents in addition to property tax paid by our residents is a realistic approach,” Board Chair Brian McMahan said. “That’s a huge tax increase burden for the people in that community.”
One reason the proposed tax is so high is the large number of tax-exempt properties in the area such as Western Carolina University, churches, Tuckaseigee Water and Sewer Authority, government-owned property and property owned by Duke Energy. Some organizations donate money to CVFD.
The department has received a few thousand dollars in donations from some of the $200 million in taxable apartment complexes in the area. Others donate nothing.
The board took no action.
Staff were directed to reach out to other county fire departments to assess their needs and contact neighboring counties to learn how they have addressed such issues.