Saluda fire asks for one-cent fire tax increase

Published 5:46 pm Monday, April 16, 2012

Saluda Fire Chief Shane Bradley approached the Saluda Board of Commissioners Monday, April 9 requesting the board consider a one-cent fire tax increase.
“Just keeping up with the times – the expense is skyrocketing,” Bradley said of running the department. “I know the burden on the taxpayers is awful. We’re not trying to get a T-bone steak, but there’s only so much we can do.”
Bradley said the department could use the funds to cover the constantly rising costs of equipment and expenses related to required training.
Saluda commission members asked to see the fire department’s budget and its contracts with Polk and Henderson counties before making any recommendations.
Saluda last increased its fire tax from 6 to 8 cents in 2002. In budget year 2010, the reevaluation of property values dropped the Saluda fire tax to 5.5 cents because the Henderson County tax dropped from 8 cents to 6.5 cents. The Saluda tax rate contract currently calls for the town’s rate to be one cent lower than the county’s rate. For budget year 2012 it increased from 6.5 to 7.5 in Henderson County, but remained 5.5 in Polk. The department worked with a total budget of $309,000 this year, with about $52,000 coming from Saluda’s 5.5 percent tax rate and the rest from Polk and Henderson counties.
Currently, three full-time 24-hour shift firefighters run the department with the help of approximately 35 volunteers.
The department, Bradley said, also maintains a dive team and a swift water rescue team, as well as high-angle certification for steep rescues near areas such as Big Bradley Falls.
Deputy Fire Chief Zach Pace said while everything seems to cost more these days, especially fuel for the trucks, the end of a salary grant will also hit hard next budget year.
Pace said a FEMA grant the department received in 2008 is about to run out. The SAFER (Staffing For Adequate Fire and Emergency Response) grant paid 90 percent of two full-time employees’ salaries in its first year. The grant lasted for five years but decreased each year. In 2013, the department will receive no funding from the grant.
“We can’t lose these positions and we won’t, but it would be nice to have the increase because the department will now be covering the full cost of two full-time positions,” he said.
It’s critical the department keeps up with staffing and equipment, Pace said, in order to maintain the department’s new rating. In May 2011 the department went through a N.C. Department of Insurance ratings test. While official results have not returned, Saluda did verbally hear from the department that it was able to improve its ISO rating from 7 to 5.
“We’re trying our best and we’ve worked real hard for the last few years to try and lower our insurance rating, which we’re hoping will save taxpayers money on their homeowner’s insurance,” Bradley said. “I’m hoping the citizens will stand behind us on this – they always have in the past.”