Sales tax switch may benefit fire departments
by Kellen Short
The 14 fire departments as a whole will receive an estimated $945,000 in the upcoming fiscal year, an increase from the cumulative $319,000 they received from the county during the 2012-13 year.
But those departments that will see gains next year aren't expecting their luck to last beyond one year -- and some won't see any increase at all.
"There's no guarantee that this is not going to be a one-time thing," said Chief Jimmy Isaacs of the Boone Fire Department. "We tried to look at that as an opportunity to work toward replacement of equipment or our large capital items, but not to look at it for debt service or things of that nature."
At Boone Fire, which is expected to receive about $232,000 in sales tax revenue next year, the staff will look toward replacing its Engine 4, a 1998-model tanker that is nearing its life expectancy, Isaacs said.
The purchase will not likely be made in the 2013-14 fiscal year, but the additional funding will likely speed up the replacement timeline by a year or two, he said.
No department will know exactly how much it's going to receive each month until it's received, as sales tax collections fluctuate from year to year.
In Blowing Rock, which also expects to see a jump from $19,000 in county funding this year to about $144,000 in sales tax revenue next year, the needs are similar.
"Fire departments have a long list of major capital projects they can always put that toward," Blowing Rock Chief Kent Graham said.
In Blowing Rock, that includes a new tanker for Station 2 - a purchase that will likely come next fiscal year - as well as other truck replacements and ongoing fundraising efforts for a third station in the Aho and Sampson area, he said.
"We're considering this a one-time thing, and it will definitely be in capital and not put into operational," Graham said.
Chief Terry Combs said the Cove Creek Volunteer Fire Department, which is slated to receive an extra $45,000 next year, will improve its self-contained breathing apparatus equipment and will upgrade its compressor to refill the air bottles. The purchase would likely provide an extra 15 minutes of air per bottle for firefighters.
In the Triplett community, Stewart Simmons Fire Chief Doug Berry said the burst of funding is appreciated after several years of loss due to the economy.
"Nothing is an increase to us," he said. "For our purposes, it's just keeping us afloat until we finally get the tax base stabilized and get through the revaluation and see what our tax base is for the next several years."
Berry said the additional $19,000 headed his way will likely be saved for a future truck purchase or replacement, as Stewart Simmons currently has the smallest fleet of any county fire department.
In Meat Camp, the additional funding may go toward building payments on the new fire department building now under construction, Chief Ben Winebarger said. The department also is working to get re-rated in the next year or two, which could require the purchase of an additional truck or equipment, he said. Property owners could gain from lower insurance rates as a result, he said.
Deep Gap Chief Mark Parsons said his department also may use the funding toward its ongoing ISO rating process, which has required the department to burn through its fuel budget traveling the district for pump tests and checks.
Some departments won't see the influx of cash next year. The Shawneehaw, Creston, Beech Mountain and Seven Devils fire departments won't see additional funding from Watauga County, and Beaver Dam, Zionville and Todd will likely receive only modest increases.
Margaret Pierce, Watauga County finance director, said the county opted to "hold harmless" those departments that would have received less funding due to the sales tax switch.
Beech Mountain Fire Department was the most dramatic difference, as it is estimated to receive only about $600 in sales tax revenue from Watauga County, Pierce said. Instead, it will receive the same $20,500 it received this year.
While the sales tax switch was a controversial move by the Board of Commissioners - it narrowly passed by a 3-2 vote - some commissioners said they're pleased to see hardworking firefighters get what they need.
Commissioner Perry Yates, who serves on the Watauga County Fire Commission, said he heard initial concerns that some departments would lose as a result of the sales tax change but was pleased that none will.
"I think it really came at a good time to help these guys," Yates said. "... These things are not going to come around but every so often."
Fire departments set to gain
12-13 county allocation 13-14 estimated
FOSCOE 19,000 165,126
BEAVER DAM 32,000 35,223
BOONE 19,000 232,638
ZIONVILLE 32,000 34,574
COVE CREEK 27,000 72,081
STEWART SIMMONS 27,000 46,471
MEAT CAMP 27,000 64,520
TODD 16,000 19,671
BLOWING ROCK 19,000 144,321
SHAWNEEHAW 32,000 32,000
CRESTON 8,000 8,000
DEEP GAP 28,500 58,013
BEECH MTN. 20,500 20,500
SEVEN DEVILS 12,000 12,000