East Spencer proposed budget includes 20-cent tax increase for full-time fire department

Published 12:10 am Wednesday, June 5, 2024

EAST SPENCER — East Spencer Town Manager Michael Douglas officially presented the proposed budget, which included the discussed 20-cent tax increase, to the board of aldermen during its meeting on Monday.

The 20-cent tax increase has been the subject of multiple months of community meetings and is aimed at funding a full-time fire department for the town. Douglas’ proposal calls for the tax rate to move to 86 cents starting with fiscal year 2025 and ending in fiscal year 2030, at which point it would go down by five cents every year until it reaches 71 cents.

“I know that the fact of the matter is that I’m asking residents to sacrifice something in order to get a full-time fire department. I understand that, and I don’t take that lightly,” said Douglas.

That five-year period would allow for the community to bring in the fully-staffed fire department in preparation for future residential and economic development, some of which has already begun construction.

“The problem as I see it right now, I know we’re all against taxes, but those people who are against it, if their house caught on fire they would say, ‘Y’all did not do anything.’ Well, we don’t have a fire department to do anything. We’re in a catch-22. We don’t have the development yet, it’s coming, but we’ve got to have a fire department,” said Alderman Albert Smith.

Mayor Pro Tem Curtis Cowan and Alderman Deloris High mentioned that they had spoken with citizens throughout East Spencer, who had mostly expressed reservations about the increase. Both stated that they understood that the town needs a fire department, but wondered if there was another action they could take instead of the five-year tax increase.

“What gets me is the five-year plan. That’s a long time. We have a lot of revenue getting ready to come in, so in two years we would probably double our tax base. We’ll have the money for this fire department coming. I could go for a two- or three-year deal, but stretching it out five years is a bit much,” said Cowan.

High asked if the town had explored grants from the state or federal government that would pay for the department for the first few years until the development was finished, to which Douglas said that the town had applied for the federal Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response grant. However, the town will not receive a decision until November, at which point it would be too late to increase taxes to fund the department.

Douglas’ proposed budget would pay for seven full-time positions within the fire department, with three captains, three engineers and a fire chief. He said that with the seven positions, the total annual cost for salaries alone would be $376,000, a number that does not include any benefits or other costs.”

“Right now, we have a volunteer fire department where we only have one volunteer total. That one volunteer, he’s a great man, but he can’t run a firetruck by himself. There are times when the firehouse itself is not even manned after five o’clock,” said Douglas.

In a Salisbury Post story from March, Douglas said that the idea for a full-time fire department came after the former Rowan-Salisbury School System administration building was destroyed in January of 2023. The response to that fire relied almost entirely on mutual aid, with East Spencer’s sole fire truck not functioning properly. A new truck was ordered last year to replace that truck and is expected to arrive in 2027.

The town held multiple community meetings in each of March, April and May in order to receive community members’ input on the potential tax increase.

“I was driving down Long Street last week, and there was a firetruck from another municipality at an incident. I slowed down as I drove past our fire department, and the truck was in the garage with the door closed. That is unacceptable. If it hurts a little bit for a little while, I’d rather hurt for a little while than lose my whole house,” said Alderman George Jackson.

The consensus among the aldermen was that the town needs to implement a full-time fire department before the development comes in, or else they would constantly be working from behind. In March, Douglas said that the proposal for the department and how to pay for it came after the aldermen indicated that it was a top priority for the upcoming fiscal year.

“What price do you put on safety? Chief McBride said he has been asking whichever board for the last 12 years for a full-time fire department. We’ve got a new housing community under construction right now. We’ve got Rusher Farms under construction right now. They can’t afford to wait for the next jurisdiction to get there if a problem comes out. That’s our responsibility. If it’s been 12 years since the chief began asking for this, how long do we continue kicking this same can down the road?” said Alderman Shawn Rush.

The budget does not include any increases to garbage collection, water or sewer fees.

Mayor Barbara Mallett asked Douglas if he could attempt to find room for approximately $20,000 in the budget. Approximately $15,000 of that would go towards continuing the town’s grants for minor repairs to homes, which in prior years was done with federal funding. The remaining $5,000 would go towards assisting East Spencer Head Start.

The proposed budget has not yet been finalized, as the board of aldermen set a public meeting for 4 p.m. on June 17 to hold a final discussion and vote on the budget.

Anyone who wishes to view the proposed budget can pick up a copy at East Spencer Town Hall or find a digital copy on the town’s website, under the budgets tab.