Citing aging equipment, Enochville Fire eyes tax increase

Published 12:00 am Sunday, June 9, 2013

ENOCHVILLE — With a rusting tanker and air tanks that are nearly kaput, Enochville firefighters hope county leaders sign off on a fire tax increase during Monday’s budget meeting.
Crews will have to convince a board of commissioners who could be pinching every penny possible.
But that hasn’t stopped the department from trying.
Enochville Fire Chief Clark Mackey stacked the commissioner’s room with firefighters — several of which who spoke — during a public hearing on the budget last Monday.
Commissioners are holding a budget work session Monday and the issue of fire taxes is expected to come up.
The department has asked for a 1-cent tax increase from 6 cents to 7 cents per $100 valuation.
Mackey said he doesn’t want to raise taxes any more than residents do, but with an average age of nearly 20-years-old for his vehicle fleet, the department needs help.
“You don’t want to go up on taxes but when 911 is called, you want the fire department to be there,” Mackey said.
Mackey said the department’s call volume continues to climb, jumping from 427 calls in 2011 to 524 last year.
The department’s only tanker is a 1995 Mack water truck that holds 2,500 gallons of water.
Mackey said the truck is firefighters’ biggest source of water when fighting fires, but the county’s water supply has taken its toil on the pump, which is covered in rust.
Some other vehicles can hold small amounts, Mackey said, but in a district with no fire hydrants — the tanker is a must.
“This is how we get water to fire scenes,” Mackey said.
Firefighter and EMT Daniel Jenkins called the tanker “our lifeline.”
“We’ve got to put these trucks on the road. We’ve got to be en route to various emergencies,” Jenkins said. “You don’t want to be in the middle of a house fire half way to the house when the pump falls out of the truck and you’re out of water.”
Crews have another problem, too.
Most of the department’s air tanks are set to run out of their 15-year qualification in 2015. The tanks could be used, he said, but the performance would be questionable.
Mackey told commissioners during the public comment period he would not jeopardize crew members’ lives by putting them in tanks that no longer had a proper inspection.
“In 2015, these air bottles won’t be any good,” he said Friday. “There’s 18 of them.”
The older tanks, Mackey said, also don’t have universal valves that would allow other departments to connect a foreign tank to an older Enochville tank.
If a firefighter went down, he said, a fellow member from a neighboring department might not be able to get them air.
Mackey estimates the cost of replacing tanks and the air packs that hold them to be about $50,000.
With the proposed fire tax increase, the department would receive a little more than $27,000 in extra funding next year.
At that time, Mackey said, they’ll decide whether to fix the tanker or buy another one, and how to go about replacing the department’s tanks.
“We’ll have to do some financing either way,” he said.
Despite firefighters’ requests for a fire tax increase, Enochville faces a county commission that could be hard-pressed to approve the change.
But at least one commissioner said he would sign off.
In a phone interview Friday, Commissioner Jon Barber said communities know best and the ones that have approved the tax should receive it.
“The communities appoint their board of directors and their fire chief,” Barber said. “They’re much closer to the needs than we are. If the community has spoken in favor of a tax increase, I will support that tax increase.”
Barber said volunteer fire departments were traditionally born out of a need in the community.
He said the board should support those community voices.
Enochville is one of three fire districts asking for a tax increase. The others are Mt. Mitchell and Cleveland Fire departments.
Barber said he thinks the board would approve of possibly two of the three districts — but he thinks someone will be left out.
Vice Chairman Craig Pierce had a more conservative prediction.
“I feel like some are justified and some aren’t,” Pierce said, noting that he didn’t want to elaborate on how he would vote. “They’ll be some departments that get what they ask for and some that won’t.”
Pierce said some departments across the county are asking for more than their neighboring districts.
“If the majority of them can operate at a certain level, the rest of them ought to set their budget accordingly,” he said.
Mackey said the department’s budget took a major hit in 2010 when Enochville couldn’t renew a contract with Cabarrus County.
Those cuts affected vehicle upgrades, equipment replacement and personnel training.
Mackey would like to see the department fund, at least in part, some of his members trips to firefighter training weekends with the proposed increase.
“If we can help them out with a hotel room — a lot of guys up here work two jobs,” Mackey said. “They spend a lot of time up here, away from their family, to serve this community.
“It’s hard for them to spend their own money to go to a weekend fire school.”
Mackey also hopes to construct more props for on-site training at the department.
At the moment, he uses a makeshift course and a “tangle box” to help crews learn how to get out of tricky duct work compartments.
Jenkins, who has been at the department for more than three years, said the training and improved equipment would make a major difference in the department’s safety in upcoming years.
“We do what we do because it’s a passion. We want to be able to help people and we’re willing to put ourselves in harms way to be able to help someone,” he said.
“But at the end of the day our personal safety is No. 1 to us. We want to make sure at the end of the day every single one of us can go home to our families.”

Contact reporter Nathan Hardin at 704-797-4246.