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Public hearing set for increase in firefighting tax

By Karissa Minn
kminn@salisburypost.com
SALISBURY — Almost all of Rowan County’s 24 volunteer fire departments would have to raise their tax rates to avoid losing money in the next fiscal year, according to county finance officials.
If departments choose to raise their rates, residents of those fire districts will have a chance to speak up at the June 6 meeting of the Rowan County Board of Commissioners, the board agreed Monday.
Rowan County requires any fire department that wants to raise its district’s tax rate to hold a public hearing on the matter. Commissioner Jon Barber made a motion Monday to waive that requirement in light of the reduced tax base after revaluation.
“A huge majority of fire departments are looking at adjusting tax rate to get back to a revenue neutral situation,” Barber said.
He said the board normally sets aside time for a public hearing on the budget at its first meeting in June, and local residents can speak for or against the fire tax rates at that time. Fire departments wanting to go above a revenue neutral rate still would be required to hold their own public hearings.
Commissioner Raymond Coltrain seconded the motion, but the other three board members said they’d rather keep the public hearing requirement in place.
“Rowan County, for the last three years, has cut its budget every year,” Commissioner Jim Sides said. “We’ve never asked the fire departments to cut anything.”
He said many of the departments have surplus funds they could use to avoid cutting their expenses. He also said the county’s fire departments don’t include in their budgets a yearly “windfall” they receive when the county collects more taxes than projected from their districts.
Chairman Chad Mitchell said he couldn’t support eliminating the public hearing requirement, but he could support allowing the hearings to take place at one commissioners’ meeting.
“In the past, commissioners have attended those public hearings at the local fire district level,” Mitchell said. “We wouldn’t be able to attend all of those.”
Barber then amended his motion to require fire departments setting a higher tax rate to advertise public hearings, which will be held this year during a designated time at the budget public hearing on June 6. It passed 5-0.
Also at Monday’s meeting, a motion by Barber to allow four Rufty-Holmes Senior Center employees to buy into the county’s health insurance plan failed with only two votes in favor.
Commissioners also clarified that the county will be paying to insure four or five current Rowan County employees transitioning to Rufty-Holmes, but they will be covered under the nonprofit’s health plan, not the county’s.
Commissioners voted in February to move the Senior Services department under Rufty-Holmes after County Manager Gary Page said the county would save about $132,000 a year.
A proposed memorandum of understanding had included a provision that current and transitioning Rufty-Holmes employees would be covered under the county’s health plan, allowing the nonprofit to get better coverage with lower premiums.
Barber said approving this provision, which the board had set aside, would not cost the county any money. Coltrain seconded Barber’s motion, saying the employees should be given something for taking on additional responsibilities, but it failed to gain another vote.
Sides said he made the motion Feb. 21 specifically to approve the memorandum of understanding with the exception of the insurance provision.
“I think it would set a dangerous precedent for other nonprofits to say they want to get that benefit,” Sides said. “I can’t vote at this time to change that motion without changing other points.”
Under the memorandum, Rufty-Holmes will be guaranteed the current county funding of $60,000 annually. This includes $40,000 per year for operating expenses and another $20,000 added on for the past two years.
Mitchell said he also doesn’t like the idea of effectively giving Rufty-Holmes more money on top of this when other nonprofits are likely to be cut. He suggested bringing the issue back up during the board’s budget discussions, pointing out that it would cost more money to cover the Rufty-Holmes premium than the county’s for transitioning employees.


In other business
Rowan County Commissioners also:
• Awarded a service sidearm to retiring deputy Mark S. Howell.
• Approved an application for $124,906 in continued implementation funding for the Criminal Justice Partnership Program.
• Approved a request from the North Carolina National Guard to shift the existing taxiway easement at the Rowan County Airport to align with the existing taxiway that serves that National Guard facility at the airport.
• Granted a right-of-way easement for Duke Energy at Ellis Park. The company must place a transformer on county property in order to complete light installation for the ball field.
• Approved two budget amendments from the library and health department to account for additional grant and state funds, respectively.
Contact reporter Karissa Minn at 704-797-4222.

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