North Carolina Firefighters Not Likely to See Requested Tax Hike

Iredell County commissioners appear unlikely to meet a request to raise the countywide fire tax this year. The proposed 2005-06 budget allocates $3.29 million for the fire district and does not include the 1-cent tax hike requested by leaders of the county fire tax commission.

The commissioners made no move to amend the proposed budget at a workshop Thursday, despite the case made by fire-tax commission vice chairman Frank Phillips. Phillips wants the county to raise the 5-cent-per-$100 property valuation rate to 6 cents to cover increasing expenses among the 12 volunteer fire departments in the county's fire-tax district.

"There's a big need for the 1-cent increase," Phillips told the county commissioners. "We have a lot of outdated fire departments. Many need substantial repairs, and several need rebuilding totally."

In addition, the biggest expense facing the departments, Phillips said, is the cost of paid firemen. Three years ago, few of the departments had any paid fireman. Now, most have at least two paid firemen. This is because many volunteers work outside their communities, so stations have to pay firemen to respond to calls during the day.

Paying firemen costs $600,000 of the fire district's $3.2 million annual budget.

The 12 fire departments supervised by the fire tax commission are not a part of the county government. They are funded by a special tax levy, set by the county commissioners and allocated by the fire tax commission.

Three other fire departments, Mount Mourne, Shepherd and East Alexander, have their own fire-tax districts with separate tax rates. The county commissioners agreed Thursday to raise Mount Mourne's tax rate from 3 cents to 3.5 cents, while maintaining the current rates for Shepherd and East Alexander.

"They're still below everybody else, so we can be flexible," commissioner Ken Robertson said in approving the increase in Mount Mourne's fire tax rate.

Robertson also said he believed that any increase in the county-wide fire tax rates needed to be tied to a benefit for the property owner. If taxes go up, the fire tax commission should be prepared to show how it would reduce homeowner insurance rates.

"The cost needs to be connected with the benefit," Robertson said.

If the fire tax were raised a penny, the owners of a $150,000 home would see their fire tax rise $15.

Commissioners also heard a presentation from county finance director Susan Blumenstein on a proposed pay raise of 1.5 percent for county employees, as a result of recent job reclassifications.

Another 2 percent is available for merit raises.

Iredell County commissioners will hold a public hearing on the proposed 2005-06 budget at 7 p.m. Tuesday and are expected to vote to adopt it at the June 21 commission meeting.