Johnston County News

Local volunteer fire departments turning to tax increases

SELMA, N.C. (WNCN) - The growing needs of volunteer fire departments involve turning to tax increases for some areas.

Fire chiefs in Selma and Archer Lodge hope the Johnston County Commission will approve requests to raise rates on property taxes by 0.02 percent in the next budget. The county's Emergency Services Fire Marshal, Adam Stanley, said the Thanksgiving Volunteer Fire Department is also asking for the 2-cent fire tax increase within its fire district.

Selma Chief Phillip McDaniel said the biggest need is replacing their 27-year-old ladder truck, which went into service in Selma in 1993.

"We run about 1,200 calls a year here, and it runs every structural-related call. We call it the workhorse of the fleet," McDaniel said. "It performs the grunt work on a house fire or anything like that. We're looking to replace it with a truck that can even do a little bit more. It will be more rescue-type duty so we'll actually get a little bit more service out of it."

McDaniel said having such a truck helps the department maintain and potentially improve its Insurance Service Office rating. Lower ISO numbers mean lower insurance rates for homeowners. The ISO is based on a combination of factors such as distances from homes for fire stations and hydrants, as well as the equipment and training available for firefighters.

Selma's fire district includes both the town, as well as rural area outside the town limits. The department relies heavily on volunteers as only two full-time and one part-time firefighter work each shift, in addition to McDaniel.

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"This year's budget includes the purchase of that truck and the debt service. We're planning on financing that. It's going to cost a lot to still finance that using some smart fiduciary funds. It's still going to take a while to pay it off," McDaniel said.

The truck will cost about $800,000. McDaniel said a ladder truck typically goes for about $1 million, but they are forgoing some bells and whistles. He said the rural fire department runs as a very frugal operation, cutting costs wherever possible.

The proposed tax increase will cost the average household about $20 a year, according to the Selma chief. He said it should bring in around $32,000 annually, which is crucial to their continued service.

This is the second time this decade the Selma Fire Department looked at an increase. The last time was in 2011, and McDaniel said their budget increased from around $400,000 to $500,000 during the past seven years. He said Selma is growing but at not nearly the same rate as other portions of Johnston County.

Archer Lodge Fire Chief Phillip Driver said his district has not requested any increase in more than 25 years. Driver said rates actually went down about a decade ago. He hopes to grow the department from its current staff of seven full-time employees to 10. Additional funding will be necessary to cover benefits packages, and Archer Lodge also needs a new truck and extra equipment.

Both departments are also trying to recruit more firefighters.

"We here in Selma are facing the same issues that fire departments across the country are seeing. A lot of volunteers just don't have the ability to put the time in that they used to," McDaniel said. "We're trying to get our volunteer force strong. We've done a pretty good job with that but it gets harder and harder every year."

He said the population is increasing, but so is the number of people leaving the area during the day to work in Raleigh and other nearby areas including Garner and Clayton.

Devonta Surles works in Smithfield but volunteers with the Selma Fire Department, which recognized him as Volunteer Firefighter of the Year in 2017.

"It's a childhood dream. I enjoy what I do and helping people," Surles said.

The truck the department wants to replace is older than he is. It has also received repairs totaling more than $40,000 over the past five years. The firefighters said it's gotten to the point where the repairs are more costly than buying a new truck.

"It's old, and we run it a lot. It's been a good truck, and it's time for a replacement," Surles said.

The Selma Fire Department will have a community info session Wednesday at 6 p.m. at the main station to address any questions or concerns about the proposed tax increase. A similar meeting in Archer Lodge will be Thursday at 6:30 p.m.

The Fire Tax Committee of the Johnston County Board of Commissioners meets Monday, June 11, 2018 at 3:30 p.m. in the Emergency Operations Center at the Johnston County Courthouse Law Enforcement Center. 

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