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Facing personnel deficiencies, local fire departments request tax rate increases

SALISBURY — For the first time ever, the West Rowan Volunteer Fire Department may pay several part-time firefighters.

Utilizing creative scheduling, the department for years has relied on dozens of dedicated volunteers who responded to house fires, brush fires, wrecks and medical emergencies on their weekends or days off from full-time jobs. But relying solely on volunteers, Fire Chief John Morrison said, is getting harder to do. 

In order to have the funding needed to hire the part-time firefighters, the department has requested a 2-cent increase to the tax rate levied on property owners in its fire district.

“I’ve fought this thing for the last three years trying to decide what to do, but it’s gotten to the point where I’ve got to do it to provide the service, especially Monday through Friday in the daytime hours,” Morrison said.

On an operating budget of about $300,000 per year, the West Rowan department operates four fire stations and covers approximately 49 square miles of rural homes and farmland. The department is seeking to increase its tax rate from 7 cents to 9 cents for every $100 in assessed property value. As a result of the two-cent raise, Morrison said, $58,000 per year would be added to the department’s budget.

The West Rowan Volunteer Fire Department is one of seven county fire departments requesting an increase to their fire district’s tax rate. 

Located in non-municipal areas, fire districts each have an established tax rate set for the purpose of providing funding for that district’s fire protection program. State statute sets the maximum fire tax rate at 15 cents per $100 in assessed property valuation in the district. Rowan County’s fire tax rates vary by district — from 3 cents to almost 10 cents.

Any requested tax increases must first be approved by the Rowan County Board of Commissioners and added to the county’s fiscal year budget.

The following districts are requesting increases in the following amounts per $100 property valuation:

• Atwell: From 7.75 cents to 9.75 cents.

• Bostian Heights: From 8.45 cents  to 9 cents.

• Franklin Township: From 7.16 cents to 9 cents.

• Locke From 9 cents to 9.75 cents

• Miller’s Ferry: From 8 cents to 8.75 cents

• South Rowan District: From 8.55 cents to 9 cents

• West Rowan: From 7 cents to 9 cents.

The most common reason why fire departments across the county are requesting tax rate increases, Fire Marshal Deborah Horne said, is to shore up personnel deficiencies.

“We can’t get volunteers like we used to in years past, so many departments are looking for more personnel to run the calls for service in the district,” Horne said.

Finding volunteer firefighters has become more difficult in recent years, Atwell Fire Department Assistant Chief Steven Garver said.

“We’re doing everything we can, but volunteers are disappearing,” said Garver, who is approaching his 46th year with the department. “It’s been a long time since we got a bunch of new volunteers.”

With more funding, fire departments will hope to recruit new firefighters in an increasingly competitive marketplace. 

“There’s pretty good competition out there in this county and other counties out there for paid personnel, so you’d have to hire more (firefighters) than you’d like to in order to get those five weekdays covered,” Morrison said. “You may have two guys who can work two days a week and you may have two more guys who can only work one day a week.”

Morrison said the West Rowan Fire Department will probably offer part-time positions starting at $12 an hour, what he said is a competitive rate locally.

Before fire departments even propose a tax rate increase to commissioners, they must first hold public meetings at their stations to gain feedback from residents in their districts. Typically, one or two county commissioners attend the meetings as well.

Morrison said West Rowan Volunteer Fire Department’s public hearings regarding the proposed tax rate increase, which were held last month, were sparsely attended. He only heard concerns about the increase in tax rate from one individual.

Morrison views the lack of input from the public as a good sign.

“They didn’t show up. They didn’t fuss about it. So, they must not have a big issue with it,” Morrison said.

Garver said his department’s recent public meetings regarding the tax increase was similarly unattended.

Selling citizens on a tax increase isn’t always the easiest thing to do, but both Garver and Morrison said they have found a tactic that they said seems to work. They explain to residents how a well-funded fire department can impact their home and commercial insurance rates.

Each fire department in the state of North Carolina is assigned a class rating from the Insurance Services Office, the national insurance industry rating agency. The rating is determined after an assessment by the N.C. State Fire Marshal’s Office, which takes into account a fire department’s staffing levels, available water supply, communication systems and community outreach.

The resulting ISO class rating indicates how well-equipped a fire department is to put out fires in its district. Ratings are assigned on a 10-point scale, with 1 being the best possible rating. Insurance companies then use the ISO rating when determining policies.

“The lower your ISO rating, the better rate homeowner’s get on insurance,” Garver said.

Obtaining low ISO ratings is difficult for rural departments, Garver said, because access to water is more limited than in urban areas.

The Atwell Fire Department currently has an ISO class 4 rating while West Rowan sports a ISO class 5 rating. If the departments were to slip in the rankings to 9, insurance rates would likely increase.

With more revenue generated through the tax, Garver said, the Atwell Fire Department can keep the station more adequately staffed and keep its ISO rating down.

The Rowan County Board of Commissioners will continue to finalize the county’s fiscal year 2021-22 budget in the coming weeks. It must pass a budget by July 1, the start of the 2021-2022 fiscal year.

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