The Wilkes County commissioners heard opposition to a requested 3-cent increase in the Millers Creek Fire District tax rate, a plea from a parent for more funds for the Wilkes schools and a request for more financial aid for the Wilkes Heritage Museum in public hearings Tuesday night.
The commissioners held a hearing on the Millers Creek Fire District tax rate hike request and a second hearing on the proposed 2020-21 county budget. They asked a few questions Tuesday night but took no action.
In accordance with a new state law addressing remote meetings of public bodies during the COVID-19 pandemic, public comments for hearings must be submitted in writing within 24 hours before and 24 hours after the hearing.
County Manager John Yates said two letters were submitted on the draft budget, one from the Wilkes Heritage Museum Executive Committee and the other from Sarah Billings of North Wilkesboro, parent of a child in the Wilkes County Schools. Yates said the letter from Billings came after the meeting Tuesday night.
The letter from the museum executive committee repeated a request for $43,000 for replacing two heating and air conditioning units that quit functioning plus the same appropriation received in 2019-20. It said summer heat and humidity will damage artifacts in the museum if the two units aren’t replaced. Proposed funding for the museum in the draft budget denies the HVAC funding and leaves the museum with $16,270 (about 14% less than the prior year.)
The letter from Billings said she was concerned about the Wilkes school budget cuts being unreasonably high. “My child has lost interaction with his teacher this year as have all the other children due to the pandemic. The county as a whole will need extra educational support for the next year rather than less in order to maintain acceptable educational levels. Knowledge is power and growth. I do not believe that cutting the educational system will promote the health of the county in its future,” she said.
The draft budget recommends $14.74 million for the Wilkes Schools, including $11.9 million for current expenses and $559 million for capital outlay. That’s $2.59 million less for operational funding and $91,000 less for capital funding than the prior year. Both are 14% cuts. The total appropriation includes lottery and sales tax revenue received from the state and passed on to the schools.
Wilkes School Superintendent Mark Byrd stated in a letter to Yates that realizing the impact of the coronavirus on county government, the school system was requesting the same increase in current expense funding approved for 2019-20, or about $625,000. “By requesting roughly half of our previous year ‘s request, this is our system’s way of trying to assist with the needs of other county agencies.” Byrd said $650,000 in capital funding, the same amount sought for 2019-20, was also requested.
Millers Creek Fire District tax rate
Wilkes fire district tax rates are in the county budgets so the Millers Creek rate will be whatever the commissioners include in the 2020-21 budget. The proposed budget shows the 3-cent rate hike. Millers Creek is the only Wilkes fire district with a requested rate hike.
County Attorney Tony Triplett noted that unlike the county budget, a public hearing isn’t required on a fire district tax rate. Commissioner Gary Blevins asked Triplett if he recalled the commissioners ever rejecting a fire district tax rate hike in his 30 years with the county. Triplett said he couldn’t recall that.
The Millers Creek Fire Department Board of Directors voted 5-1 on Feb. 12 to ask the commissioners to approve increasing the fire district tax rate from its current 7 cents to 10 cents per $100 of property valuation.
Yates read a letter from Hayden Church of Millers Creek in the public hearing that said, “What a horrible time to even consider raising our fire tax with this pandemic across our county. Have you considered the citizens that are now out of work, seniors on a fixed income, families with many kids barely making money to feed them? Apparently, no one at the county level has. Recently Wilkesboro announced an increase in water rates. For many Millers Creek residents, this is a double punch in the gut from government.”
Yates read a letter from Charles Church of Purlear that said, “I would like to voice my opposition to the tax rate increase requested by the Millers Creek Fire Department. Due to the financial burdens placed on many Wilkes County citizens over the past few months, any tax increase would be unwise and foolish at this time. MCFD is a great asset to our community, yet they receive more tax dollars than any other voluntary fire department in the county. Like everyone else, they need to tighten their belt and live within their means.”
Yates read a letter from Monica C. Bolick of Purlear that said, “I strongly oppose the rate increase…. Many families are struggling right now to even live. Many people were forced into unemployment and are experiencing financial burdens as never before in these unprecedented times. Simply put, it is too much to ask of the citizens to help fund the nonessential needs of their local volunteer fire department. Millers Creek FD currently receives more funding than other volunteer departments in the county. Although I appreciate the service they provide, I'm certain that all other departments in the county are equally dedicated and provide services at the same level, with less funding.”
Jeremy Bumgarner, Pamela Oakley, Kenneth Eastridge, Tommy Gray, Rex Church, Christine Nichols, Hohn Church and a person whose signature wasn’t clear signed copies of the same letter that said it 40% fire tax rate hike was very troubling. It noted that the Town of Wilkesboro announced it was raising water rates through the West Wilkes Water Association.
This letter said the fire department board had poor insight and no input from citizens before building its large fire station. “Had they been conserving for the last several years they would not need this raise. We all see the waste there at the fire department. Needlessly cruising in the large fire trucks, sending large fire trucks on first responder calls, members using the department for personal use when the citizens are forbidden to use space in the department for social functions.”
The letter asked if the county commissioners would delay the hearing until citizens could attend and noted that many citizens, especially seniors, don’t have computer to respond or can’t do so by mail.
Letter from fire chief
Yates read a letter from Millers Creek Fire Chief Robbie Bolin explaining the rate hike request.
It said the fire department board considered fiscal 2020-21 budgets based on the 7-cent fire tax rate and the requested 10-cent rate. Yates also read letters out loud from people opposed to the 3-cent tax rate increase. The letter said that after extensive discussion, it was agreed in a 5-1 vote that a 10-cent tax should be requested to meet current costs needs and for future growth. The letter said a 3-cent tax rate hike will raise an additional $155,000 per year.
The letter said the 3-cent rate increase is needed for:
• a four-year plan for building, grounds and maintenance, repair and upgrade, parking lot lighting, bay doors and other improvements and/or renovations for the Millers Creek and Parsonsville stations;
• a five-year plan to maintain and add staff for calls and other needs;
• a five to 10-year plan for new fire trucks. A new fire truck costs between $550,000 to $750,000. The department has 1985, 1991 and 1995 and trucks that need to be replaced within the next 10 years;
•a two- to four-year plan to replace personal basic firefighters protection equipment at a minimum cost of $3,800 per person, plus about $1,500 more for more specialized purposes. Most of the current gear expires in 2021;
•a four- to six-year plan for possibly adding fulltime personnel.
The letter said a Federal Emergency Management Agency grant for adding, retaining and training firefighters expires in August. (Bolin said later that it was a $400,000 grant, the second such FEMA grant received.)
The grant funded certification-based stipend pay ranging from $8 to $17 per firefighter per call, costing an average of $28,000 annually in the past four years. Firefighter/emergency medical technician (EMT) certification results in an extra $2 per call and all others result in $1 more per call.
The letter said the grant funded an average of $25,000 per member annually for training in the last four years.
This included reimbursing volunteers $10 per hour for basic certification class time and extra amounts for training-related travel and lodging outside the area.
It also paid over $10,000 per year for two part-time personnel. The letter said two part-time firefighter and rescue personnel are paid to work from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday and one of them works from 1-5 p.m. Sunday.
It said the grant helped the department add 25 new firefighters over the past four years and retain about 60% of them.
The department has 44 senior members and four junior firefighters. This includes 32 certified firefighters and 29 medically-trained members, including 20 EMTs, two N.C. medical responders, seven paramedics and 14 N.C.-certified rescue technicians.
The letter said that without the 3-cent tax rate increase, no new equipment can be purchased.
Millers Creek Board Chairman Mike Cardwell said Millers Creek had the lowest fire district tax rate in Wilkes at one point and this it still is among the lowest.
Eddie Settle, chairman of the commissioners, asked if the increase could be delayed for a year to get past the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic. Cardwell indicated he could bring that up with the board.