Tax break concerns firefighters

Published 9:51 am Monday, June 27, 2016

WINDSOR – Bertie County Commissioners heard from a spokesman for the county’s fire chiefs at Monday’s Commissioners’ meeting where the one-cent tax decrease passed with the 2016-17 budget came with a caveat: a warning about how their departments will be affected.

During public comments before the meeting, Windsor Fire Chief Billy Smithwick, speaking for the group – and whose department answered a county-high 217 fire calls in 2015 – asked the Board not to pass the decrease.

“It’s been a long time since we’ve had a raise,” Smithwick began, “our equipment’s costing more, and our safety is more and more at risk; and we think it’s time you considered a raise.”

Smithwick’s comments weren’t self-aggrandizement; he wanted the Commissioners, and the county’s residents in general, to be aware of the various departments’ challenges.

“You have a legal responsibility to EMS (Emergency Medical Services), but not to fire,” he continued. “We’re the people that protect all the property you get tax money off of. I don’t think you can do things and make decisions that will keep us from doing what we do.”

Of the county’s 12 departments, 11 are volunteer units serving the unincorporated areas of the county. Windsor’s is a municipal department.

“I would ask you to reconsider the (one-cent) tax reduction,” Smithwick stated. “I believe if you would ask the citizens would you want a tax reduction or see your fire departments stay good and strong, I don’t think there’d be any question what people would tell you.”

“There is some real strong interest in trying to do something, the support is there, they’ve built some flexibility into the budget,” County Manager Scott Sauer said during his final budget presentation. “But the task now is how we do something sustainable over the long term, but not to rush into it and maybe miss the mark of what’s most appropriate.”

During the 2016-17 budget work session on June 7, the Commissioners briefly discussed the possibility of additional funding to local fire departments, and there was extensive discussion regarding the potential funding disparity between fire departments supported by municipalities with taxing authority, and the struggling volunteer fire departments serving unincorporated areas of the county. A task force committee was suggested with Commissioner Stewart White be appointed to lead it and try to seek solutions.

Back to Monday, and during discussion before the budget vote Commissioner Tammy Lee expressed her concern over how the one-cent tax decrease affects the county’s fire departments. She addressed the chiefs.

“My very first question was if that (the one-cent decrease) would leave money for our fire departments, because I just think that’s an area where we have failed,” Lee said. “I was assured there would still be money available after the one-cent decrease, because I was in favor of helping everybody,

“The one-cent decrease does give money back to everybody and with our task force we’re going to hash out all the issues with the fire departments and come up with some money for you because you deserve it,” she added.

White had research and information about the fire departments’ insurance and equipment.

“We’re contributing $20,000,” White said. “I’d like to see us up that amount to each of the fire departments by $10,000.”

White admitted the additional $10,000 would “only put an air-pack on one fireman”, or “pay the insurance”.

“Whether it’s Blue Jay in Indian Woods, or Windsor, they all have to pay $10,000 in insurance,” White said. “That’s one of the things we’re looking at in this workshop.”

White said he hoped to present something before his fellow Commissioners by sometime in July.

While Windsor gets $191,000 from the town thanks to their municipal fire tax, plus an additional $20,000 from the county, 84 percent of their fire calls are outside the city limits. They’re getting a rescue-pumper (cost: $277,000) available to assist all the departments across the county according to their Town Manager. White also talked about what his Perrytown community has done to raise funds.

“I’ve seen the herring dinners, the chicken dinners, the shotgun raffles, and everything in between, and they have a budget of $55,000, and they pay their own life insurance which they get reimbursed for,” White said.

The Commissioner said his fire chief, Bud Lee, told him the Perrytown department was looking into purchasing used air-packs for $2,000 each.

“Gimme a break,” sneered White. “They’re probably not even state approved, or meet the guidelines. There’s so much going on that we need to assist them with.”

White cited areas like Scotch Hall – outside the Midway-Merry Hill fire district – and their having to pay higher homeowners insurance rates. He also noted other surrounding counties have a fire tax to offset some of their expenditures.

“I’m just throwing out figures for the board to consider,” he concluded.

Commissioner Ernestine Byrd Bazemore, who nominated White for his task force post, said equal distribution was one goal.

“We want to make sure all our fire departments are doing well,” she said.

“The total cost of just 20 brand new air-packs is $165,850,” White said. “These little fire departments can’t afford that. But then again we can’t afford not to.”