Citing personnel costs and inflation, fire districts seek 31% more revenue
Public and private sector wage competition,
inflation in the cost of fire trucks and equipment and new or updated fire stations have driven the county’s fire districts to ask for big budget increases.
All but four of the county’s 12 rural departments have asked the Board of Commissioners to adopt the same tax rate as last year, —even in light of the 48 percent increase in property values based on this year’s countywide reappraisal for tax purposes — and none proposed a revenue neutral rate. In all, fire tax revenue would go up by 31 percent.
Commissioner Bill Lapsley said the fire district increases would blow up the revenue neutral goal commissioners had initially hoped to meet in setting a new tax rate.
“This board is under a tremendous amount of pressure to keep a revenue neutral number, so when I look at this list — eight of the fire districts have kept the same rate but their valuations have changed dramatically,” he said. “Even those four districts that lowered their rate have increased their revenue.”
After the countywide reappraisal resets the overall tax base value, the Board of Commissioners asks the fire districts — along with the school system, BRCC and all county departments — to forecast their needs and expenses over the next four years with the goal of setting a tax rate that would remain stable until 2027.
The fire departments’ proposed revenue increases range from 20 percent in Saluda to 71 percent in Bat Cave. The FY 2024 budgets and new tax rates were all approved by the Fire & Rescue Advisory Committee, which endorsed the rates with no change.
Jimmy Brissie, the county’s director of emergency services, defended the fire chiefs’ requests during the commissioners’ budget work session last week.
“Across all the fire departments, over the past 10 years we’ve seen a 38 percent increase in calls for services,” he said.
Inflation drivers and personnel costs were common among all 12 departments. They include:
• Staffing levels and pay increases. “One-hundred percent of departments identified this as an issue. … Our volunteerism is shifting, and we’re seeing a decrease in the number of volunteers wanting to do the day-to-day stuff that fire and EMS (crews) do.” In Buncombe “most of the departments have about a $45,000 to $50,000 starting pay rate,” he said. “So most all of our fire departments are proposing a change in their starting rates from around the mid 30s to the mid to upper 40s.” Most are also starting career ladder programs so firefighters can advance in rank. “The goal there is to encourage that retention to keep Henderson County folks here working in Henderson County.”
• Fire truck and equipment inflation. In Edneyville, “a new fire truck they purchased in 2018 was $484,000,” Brissie said. “That same truck in 2022 was $719,000.” Valley Hill Fire & Rescue is replacing a 40-year-old tanker. “They ordered this tanker in May of ’21 and since May of ’21 they’ve still not taken delivery. The manufacturer has added $25,000 in surcharges under that contract to maintain its position in the production line.” In 2019 Valley Hill paid $407,000 for a fire engine that today would cost $615,000, a 50 percent increase. “In one year, we’ve seen an increase in the cost of turnout gear of 30 percent,” Brissie said. “And that’s something that every firefighter needs. Truthfully, they need two sets of gear. … Over the next four years, the fire chiefs “are indicating they’re going to have to replace nine fire engines and eight tankers.”
• New buildings and additions. Half of the fire districts expect to add new fire stations or renovate existing facilities over the four-year budget planning period and they will face runaway construction cost inflation when they do.
Lapsley expressed alarm at the $5.3 million increase in fire tax revenue.
“That’s a huge number,” Lapsley said. “I really think that we need to look hard at this. … And I think we as a board need to keep that in mind as we make a final decision here, this fire district tax number gets added to the general fund number and that’s the bill that we’re sending to the county taxpayer. I appreciate the fact that costs go up but I have a little heartburn when I see eight departments keeping the same rate.”
Commissioner David Hill, the board’s liaison to the FRAC, said that when Brissie asked each chief if he could justify his budgets, all said yes.
Commissioner Daniel Andreotta cautioned against forcing broad cuts on the fire and rescue departments.
“I think it’s important to remember that, just like we don’t want Raleigh to blanket use a machete across the state,” commissioners should respect fire chiefs’ ability to identify their needs and ask for the money to fill them.
“I think in general it would be wise of us to approach these fire districts through some of that lens because look at how different the dynamics are,” he said. “Valley Hill has 49 square miles. I think well over 80 percent of it is pure residential — no real commercial, no industry. Sixty-plus percent of their residents are over 60 years old, so they’re not gonna have a big volunteer base.”
Fletcher, on the other hand, has “a lot of industry, a lot of residential, a lot of development there. … We need to look at them and not say, ‘All of you do the same thing.’ I don’t think there’s a way they can do that.”
Edneyville Fire & Rescue Chief Robert Griffin said in an interview Friday that his department’s longstanding shift setup is unsustainable.
“Specific to Edneyville, just like everybody else, we are facing needing to increase everybody’s salary,” he said. “We’ve got four people that’s working 4,400 hours a year, so we need to drop that down. That’s the overwhelming majority of the increase we’re looking at. We’re not going to find people that’s willing to work that many hours anymore.” (A 40-hour work week totals 2,080 hours in a year.)
The cost to buy or rent a home, increased cancer risk for firefighters and a “new generation (that) doesn’t have the sense of community about them in general” all add to fire department’s inability to recruit volunteer and paid firefighters. Initial firefighter certification requires 600 hours of training.
“Then, on top of that, you’re asking them for probably a thousand hours a year of volunteer time between recurring training and responding to calls, all at an increased risk of cancer,” Griffin said. “So that does not sound very appealing to a lot of people and I understand that.”