The Millers Creek Fire Department board’s request for including a 2-cent increase in its fire district tax rate in the fiscal 2021-22 county budget was explained in a June 1 public hearing.
No one spoke against the request for a fire district tax rate of 10 cents per $100 of property valuation at the hearing, held by the Wilkes County commissioners. No other fire district tax rate hikes were sought this year.
Last year, the Millers Creek board sought a 3-cent rate hike and then dropped it by 2 cents after several Millers Creek residents sent protest letters. The commissioners approved including the 1-cent increase in the 2020-21 budget by a vote of 3-2, with commissioners David Gambill, Keith Elmore and Gary Blevins voting for and chairman Eddie Settle and commissioner Brian Minton voting against it.
The 2-cent increase requested this year so far remains in the draft 2021-22 budget, which the commissioners are expected to vote on during their June 15 meeting. Under statutes, 15 cents is the highest fire district tax rate allowed in the state.
The proposed budget keeps the county property tax rate unchanged at 66 cents per $100 of property valuation.
Millers Creek Fire Chief Robbie Bolin and Millers Creek Board Chairman Mike Cardwell said during the hearing that the fire district rate hike was needed due to costs of replacing firetrucks and other equipment, fire station maintenance and firefighter salaries.
Cardwell said revenue from a little more than 1 cent of Millers Creek’s fire tax is used to pay firefighters who are on call and a part-time firefighter program. This is about $5,000 a month.
“We can say it’s volunteer all we want, but in the end, we’re having to do that to get people to cover our area. We’re very blessed and I’m very proud of our fire department. Robbie does a good job with what he’s got,” added Cardwell.
Bolin said Millers Creek struggles to have enough volunteer firefighters on weekdays like many other departments in Wilkes and elsewhere.
He said that between 7 a.m. and 7 p.m. on weekdays, “I may only have two people on some days and seven or eight on others. It depends on who is working and their schedule….
“So, we had to expand our part-time program. Now, I’ve got 11 people who sign up each month to work a shift, from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Friday and at least one person on Saturdays and Sundays.”
As Millers Creek continues to grow, fulltime paid firefighters may be needed, said Bolin. Many fire departments in communities outside Wilkes with demographics similar to Millers Creek have already gone to a combination of volunteer and fulltime paid firefighters, he added.
Bolin said county government will have to supplement fire departments at some point. He added that revenue from a 15-cent fire tax rate (the highest allowed) wouldn’t be enough to pay the number of fulltime firefighters needed to fully staff the Millers Creek Fire Department 24 hours a day.
Millers Creek has one of the largest commercial districts of any fire district in Wilkes and this impacts equipment needed, said Bolin, adding that residential development is strong.
Except for the Wilkesboro and North Wilkesboro fire departments, he added, Millers Creek has the highest call volume in the county. The department averaged from 650 to 700 calls annually since 2010.
Cardwell said the fire department needs to replace a tanker firetruck serving Millers Creek’s station two (Summit) area. He said a new truck will cost about $245,000 and a used truck is about $115,000.
Bolin said the current 1985 tanker has damage that would cost more than the truck is worth to repair. It was taken out of service due to a safety issue and efforts for grants to fund its replacement have been unsuccessful.
He said a Millers Creek pumper fire truck that must be replaced soon will easily cost $500,000 for a model without all the extras.
Other upcoming costs include repaving the fire station’s asphalt parking lot, roof work and repainting the interior. Cardwell said all garage doors on the 19,000-square-foot fire station, 20 years old next year, were just replaced at a cost of $48,000.
“We’ve been living off grants since about 2007 to 2012,” said Cardwell, but these have become harder to get. Bolin said the department held chickenque fundraisers until the early 2000s.
Cardwell said the board voted was 4-2 to seek the 2-cent rate increase. Bolin said a 10-cent rate will be enough for five to 10 years.
There are seven members of the Millers Creek board (four community members and three firefighters), each elected for three-year terms on a staggered basis at annual meetings.
All fire district residents and/or property owners can attend the meeting, but only 50 can vote. When vacancies occur among these 50, the others vote on replacements.
McGrady and Ronda have the highest fire tax rate in Wilkes at 13 cents each. Millers Creek, Mountain View and Brushy Mountain have 8-cent rates and Austin, Pleasant Hill, Knotville, Little Brushy Mountain, Wilbar and the Wilkes portion of Wilkes-Iredell have 12-cent rates.
Mulberry-Fairplains, Boomer and Champion have 11-cent rates. Those with a 10-cent rate are Goshen, Ferguson and Cricket. It’s 9 cents in Moravian Falls, Broadway and Traphill. Shepherds Crossroads has a 7-cent rate and Roaring River’s rate is 6 cents.
The rate for the part of Buck Shoals in Wilkes is 5 cents. The other part is in Yadkin County. State Road is in Wilkes and Surry counties and the rate for the portion in Wilkes is .075.