When tragedy takes place in Macon County and a fire threatens homes, land, vehicles and lives, the people who are found on the scene putting their lives and well-being at risk to put the blaze out are more often than not volunteer firefighters from one of the local stations. These volunteers go beyond their duty of fighting fire in order to assist in situations such as accidents involving vehicles and other emergency situations, all while receiving no income in return.
Eleven fire departments operate in Macon County, each serving a different community while providing assistance to the others if needed. The fire departments use tax dollars to operate and hold fundraisers throughout the year to supplement those funds. In order to function, they must have proper equipment such as fire trucks, tools and proper protection equipment for the volunteers. Members also participate in on-going training. Last year, six fire departments made a request for a tax increase that was denied, but that did not stop four representatives from returning to the county commissioners last Thursday to again explain why these increases are necessary and make requests again for the upcoming fiscal year.
Commissioner Jimmy Tate, who has served as a fire department volunteer for 15 years in Highlands welcomed the department representatives that gathered in the board room of the court house.
“I am very familiar with what you all do and I'm very grateful for what you do,” Tate said. “I understand a lot of the heartaches that you go through and the good times as well. I have been in that position where I have had people literally die in my arms. With that being said I want to see you have the best equipment. At the same time however, we have to keep the taxpayers in mind.”
According to Tate, the requests that were made the year before were denied because the commissioners felt that the reasoning was based on the need for one time purchases, which could have been budgeted for.
“This year, it's a whole different ball game,” he said. “We appreciate you coming out tonight to give your presentations.”
Among the departments present at the meeting were Burningtown, Otto, Cowee, and Clarks Chapel. Each community has an independent tax rate that stands alone from the county tax rate, but the commissioners must approve any increases of the fire tax.
Thirty-year firefighter Kenneth McCaskill of the Burningtown Fire Department presented the board with information supporting the request to increase the fire tax by .01 per $100. At the present time, the Burningtown community pays a rate of .06 per $100. The reason for the request is to hire a full time firefighter that would be on hand at the physical location of the department.
“Most of us work in town and when the call comes in for us to go, we have to drive all the way back to the station and then out to the location of the emergency,” he said. “As if the drive itself wasn't long enough, you have to consider the construction on Highway 28. This is about saving lives and having a quicker response time.”
At the moment, Burningtown is one of the five departments that does not have a full time employee, while Clarks Chapel, Cowee, Franklin, Highlands, West Macon and Cullasaja all have a least one.
“We're budgeting for this position because of how much our calls have increased over the years,” said McCaskill. “We had 156 calls last year.”
The .01 increase would generate about $26,000 which is approaching the average cost of a full time employee. The rest of the funding for an employee would come from other budgeted money.
Among the discussion between the commissioners, commissioner Paul Higdon brought up the idea of equal service among the communities.
“I'm rarely for raising taxes, but as far as fairness is concerned, what one community gets in terms of safety and protection, the others should get,” he said. “I'm talking about standardization. How do you standardize it across the board?”
Chuck Sutton, a representative of Clarks Chapel Fire Department, said that two issues drive their increase request, the first being a decrease in tax revenues for the year.
“In the past, we built our budget based on an evaluation of $523 million for our district, but this year the total decreased to about $486 million leaving us to take about a $15,000 hit,” he said. “We don't know where it went, but that's why we're here to request an increase. It'll get us back to where we were.”
Another issue involved a firefighter who had a heart attack after a call in 2011. The volunteer was not covered by workers compensation.
“We paid premiums for years and thought he was covered, but he wasn't,” said Sutton. “It made a lot of our volunteers think twice about putting their livelihood and ability to provide for their families at risk doing something that was volunteer.”
After this incident, the department obtained insurance that would provide coverage in the event of an injury to the firefighters at a cost of $13,000 a year. To support the cost along with the tax decrease, the fire department is proposing an increase of a half cent on the existing rate of .042 to make it .047.
The Clarks Chapel fire department answered 307 calls last year and is expected to exceed that this year.
“We've already had 150 calls this year,” said Sutton. Dustin Pendergrass of Cowee Fire Department followed with an increase request of 4/10 of a cent on their current rate.
“We're looking to raise the rate in order to help pay for station three that is located on Mason Branch,” he said. “The station will help with response time. We've gone to the Community Development Organization in Cowee and got their full support for the increase.”
Cowee received 161 calls last year and 78 so far this year. To demonstrate proper budgeting methods, Pendergrass was able to show the commissioners where extra money was put in different funds — $10,000 was in the department's truck fund while $20,000 was in the building fund. The tax increase will result in $12,940 for the department.
The Otto Fire Department ended the requests for increases with their request to increase Otto's rate from .042 to .049 in order to pay for Duke Energy's rate increases as well as adding one full time firefighter.
“We've had 178 calls so far this year,” said Otto fire department representative, Doug Cabe. “We're probably 40 calls up from this time last year.”
Otto currently has one full time employee, but thinks that adding one more will help the department perform more efficiently in the large area that it covers and will allow the shifts to be staggered.
“We had a call recently where it was seven in the morning and everybody was getting ready for work or was already at work. It makes it hard,” said Cabe.
According to commissioners Ronnie Beale, Kevin Corbin, and Jimmy Tate, they have all had phone calls from members of the Otto community expressing support for the increase.
The commissioners will discuss whether they will allow increases after a hearing to allow the public's input is held at a later date.
“All fire tax goes to the fire departments,” said County Manager Jack Horton. “It's important to keep in mind that these increases wouldn't affect the county tax rate. In my experience, when they ask for these things, they actually do need it. People in the county actually get a lot more back on their investment with these taxes.”