By a 3-2 vote Tuesday night, the Wilkes County commissioners approved including a 1-cent increase in the Millers Creek Fire District tax rate in the county budget for fiscal 2020-21.
Commissioners David Gambill, Keith Elmore and Gary Blevins voted for the 1-cent rate hike, while Eddie Settle, chairman, and Brian Minton voted against it.
The Millers Creek Fire Department board originally requested commissioner approval of a 3-cent fire tax rate increase and this was included in a draft budget recommended by County Manager John Yates in early May.
Settle said the Millers Creek board came back with a request for a 1-cent increase in their fire district tax rate instead of the 3-cent increase.
This change occurred after several residents if the Millers Creek district sent letters to the commissioners opposing the rate increase. These letters were sent for a June 2 public hearing on the matter, held by the commissioners.
Commissioner Gary Blevins asked Settle if the Millers Creek board held another meeting on the rate increase after the public hearing.
When he said the additional meeting was held, Blevins asked how the public responded. Settle said he didn’t know if it was a public meeting, prompting Blevins to ask if the Millers Creek board’s meetings are public.
County Attorney Tony Triplett said the fire department is a private nonprofit corporation so its meetings are not public.
Elmore then asked, “The fact that they’re spending public funds (tax dollars), it has to be an open meeting, doesn’t it?”
Triplett said a private, nonprofit isn’t subject to the state open meetings law unless it is sufficiently under county government’s control.
He said county government collects fire tax revenue (with property taxes) and passes it on to the fire departments. “I don’t think we want to assert that we control the fire departments,” said Triplett.
Blevins complimented Settle for handling the public hearing on the request for a 3-cent increase in the fire tax rate with a cooperative spirit. He said it’s a hard call to make.
Settle said he appreciated the Millers Creek board’s decision to request a 1-cent rather than 3-cent increase, but added that he wished they wouldn’t seek any increase until the following year.
Gambill said an opportunity for citizens to publicly voice concerns about the rate hike was needed and the commissioners provided that by holding the public hearing.
Gambill said the Millers Creek board, like most other volunteer fire departments, has community representation, “but it does need to be more public.” He said he also understands that the fire department is providing a specialized service that requires having costly equipment.
Elmore said, “My feeling is that we have a group of people up there who knows their needs and they’re serving the community. I have to have confidence that they’re doing the right thing…. I don’t have enough insight to not trust them.”
Settle said he also trusts the Millers Creek board and fire department. He said that based on letters opposing the fire district tax rate hike and after talking to people in the community, he believes it’s bad timing.
He said another consideration is that budgets of most county departments and entities receiving county funds were cut 14%. He said he wished the Millers Creek board “could respond the same way.”
Settle added, “I’ll support the Millers Creek Fire Department yes I will, but I’m not going to support this tax increase.”
Blevins noted that some of the letters alleged that the fire district tax rate hike was driven by greed, but he said he disagreed with that. “I think a lot of it comes from the fact that they are so highly regulated by agencies…. I think they are under pressure to comply with a lot of things and keep a staff that is trained.”
Blevins added, “One penny, even under the circumstances, is not unreasonable.”
A letter to the commissioners from Millers Creek Fire Chief Robbie Bolin said the 3-cent rate hike was needed to address current costs and for future growth. The letter said a 3-cent tax rate hike would raise an additional $155,000 per year.
Fire district tax rates
The county tax office collects property and fire district taxes together and distributes fire tax revenue to fire departments based on what is collected in each district.
Since the county property tax rate was left unchanged at 66 cents in the fiscal 2020-21 budget, the combined county property and fire district tax rate in the Millers Creek Fire District now is 74 cents per $100 of property valuation.
Among the fire tax districts in Wilkes, McGrady and Ronda have the highest at 13 cents apiece. Millers Creek now joins Mountain View and Brushy Mountain by having an 8-cent rate.
Austin, Pleasant Hill, Knotville, Little Brushy Mountain, Wilbar and the Wilkes portion of Wilkes-Iredell all have a 12-cent rate.
Districts with an 11-cent rate are Mulberry-Fairplains, Boomer and Champion. Those with a 10-cent rate are Goshen, Ferguson and Cricket.
The rate is 9 cents in Moravian Falls, Broadway and Traphill. Shepherds Crossroads is now the only district with a 7-cent rate and Roaring River’s rate is 6 cents.
The rate for the portion 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.
The maximum allowed fire district tax rate under state law is 15 cents.