Just the Facts

Commissioners approve fire district tax increase for FFD

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Dan Finnerty

As fiscal year 2024 is nearing its end, Macon County Board of Commissioners met four times in May and June to hammer out details in the county budget for the upcoming ’24-’25 fiscal year. On June 4, the Town of Franklin lobbied for an increase in the fire district tax. While the Town has been responsible for funding the majority of the fire district, the region benefitting from its service extends well outside of Franklin’s limits. 

To put this issue into perspective, the Town of Franklin is made up of around five square miles and includes approximately 4,000 people, while Macon County encompasses 515 square miles and has a population of close to 40,000. 

Mayor Jack Horton spoke first on June 4 on behalf of the Town Council, whose participation at the meeting included Town Manager Amie Owens and council members Mike Lewis and David Culpepper. 

“It’s important, when they (those needing assistance) call the county 911 center that someone is able to respond,” said Horton. 

town of franklin mayor
FRANKLIN MAYOR Jack Horton pleads his case to Macon County Commissioners for a fire tax increase to support the widespread Franklin fire district.

The Town of Franklin Fire Department has 10 full-time firemen, far outnumbering other Macon County fire departments, which are mostly comprised of volunteers. 

Horton added, “Within fire districts in North Carolina, the fire tax has to be approved by the county board of commissioners; it can’t be approved by the town, even though the town operates a fire station … we’re coming back this year with a 7-cent tax request to support the fire district.” (The 7-cent tax represents a 2-cent increase over the current 5-cent fire tax.)

Horton also pointed out that equipment is needed at the Franklin Fire Department and expenses are high. Horton advised the board that it takes around two years to get new trucks or tankers for a fire department and the cost of those vehicles averages $1 million each.

Following the mayor, Lewis offered, “I don’t like taxes any more than anybody else. Last year we put in an order for a new fire truck that costs over a million dollars. Because we didn’t have the fire tax where we needed it last year, [the town of] Franklin taxpayers put forth $225,000 to help fund the deposit ($250,000) for that fire truck.”

Lewis also illustrated that under the current structure, only four out of every 10 people in Macon County are paying for the cost of maintaining and operating the Franklin Fire Department. All county residents are subject to the fire district tax. If the tax does not cover costs, Town of Franklin residents have to make up the difference.

In 2023, Culpepper voted against the town spending the $225,000 to subsidize the fire department because he did not think it was fair for the 4,000 in-town residents to subsidize the much larger fire district. To the commissioners on June 4 he advised, “If you don’t want to fund us, which is your prerogative, I ask you to tell us how you see us budgeting this.”

council member david culpepper
TOWN COUNCIL Member David Culpepper spoke regarding the town’s struggle to fund costly improvements to the Franklin Fire Department.

Franklin Fire Chief Ben Ormond then addressed the commissioners and emphasized how many calls his department responds to that are not within town limits. “The average number of emergency responses in our county, for the average fire department, is 335. Last year ours was 1,925.” 

He also added that the average cost per response in the county is $1,083; whereby his department per call costs are around $620. With the requested tax increase, he computed that a call to the Franklin Fire Department will subsequently cost around $915, which is still well below Macon County’s average cost per call. 

Franklin fire chief ben ormond
FRANKLIN FIRE Chief Ben Ormond urged the board to take quick action as inflation year over year has increased operating and equipment costs exponentially.

“Basically, you take our total budget and divide it by our number of calls, and at the old tax rate it’s $620; but the cost goes up per call with increased volume,” said Ormond.

In emphasizing the effect of inflation on a year over year basis, Ormond also offered, “We ordered one pumper; I still need to order a tanker. That’s $650,000 if I order it today; next year it will be $800,000. In four years, the cost of a fire truck has gone up 64%.”

When asked by Commissioner Paul Higdon about the life span of Franklin’s current fire trucks, Ormond and Owens revealed, “We have one truck that is 31 years in service and another that is 29. The National Fire Protection Association directs a truck to be put in reserve status after 15 years and completely retired at 25.”

Commissioner John Shearl questioned Ormond on how calls are broken down, for fires, first responder incidents, etc. Most calls responded to are not for fires but instead some other emergency, such as medical, accidents, and more. Ormond clarified that around 75% of his responses are for emergency medical calls, which is a similar rate of response when compared to other Macon County fire departments.

commissioners john shearl and josh young

Ormond also described how the Franklin Fire Department participates in assisting other Macon County fire department calls, due to having the most personnel for firefighting.

“At least 75% of the time, Franklin is the department putting out the fires,” he said. “We’re having to supplement because other departments don’t have the staffing or the volunteers aren’t showing up.” 

Shearl opined that volunteerism appears to be on the decline, not just locally but nationwide.

Owens spoke following Ormond and implored commissioners to approve the 7-cent tax for the fire district. “The Town can’t pass their budget unless you pass yours because you set the tax rate for the fire districts.”

With one fire truck already on order that must be paid for, Owens asked the board to return to the 7-cent tax rate that was previously granted to Franklin in 2022. “It’s the Town asking for this tax. You don’t have to answer for that. Let people come and talk to us.”

Owens, Ormond, and Council Member Joe Collins faced county commissioners again about the fire tax dilemma at the board’s June 11 meeting.

“We don’t have the purse – you have the purse,” expressed Collins. “This is absolutely necessary; it’s a district, not a municipal fire department.” 

While the vote was split, 3-2, commissioners approved raising the fire district tax from five to seven cents for fiscal year 2025. The increase can be adjusted back next year for FY-’26.

Ormond said after the vote on the 7-cent fire tax was secured, “I am ecstatic we got the increase. This will help us as we continue to grow and meet the needs of our community. I’ve been here three years and we’re still playing catch-up on every level. With additional funds, we can be more proactive in our business approach, grow with the anticipated call demand, and provide quality services.”

Fire department helps with new outdoor tables

The Friends of the Macon County Public Library teamed up with the Franklin Fire Department to provide two, new outdoor tables for patrons. 

The steel tables replace wooden picnic tables that have been aged by use and weather. In addition, one of the new tables is wheelchair accessible.

librarian and installers
MACON COUNTY Librarian Abby Hardison takes delivery of new outdoor tables from (L-R) Tim Chavis, Chuck Norton and Brandon Sutton of the Franklin Fire Department. The Friends of the Macon County Public Library purchased two new steel tables, which were assembled by the firemen.

The Friends purchased the tables from Global Industries in Atlanta. Friends board member Henrietta Haithcock and her husband, Pete, delivered the tables to the Franklin Fire Department where several firemen assembled them. The firemen then delivered the assembled tables to the library.

Special thanks go to Chuck Norton, Tim Chavis, Pete Haithcock, and Brandon Sutton of the Franklin Fire Department and Chief Ben Ormand, who approved the men for assembling the tables for the library.

Established in 1971, the Friends of the Macon County Public Library seeks to develop and maintain citizen interest and participation in the growth and development of the Macon County Public Library and to stimulate the use of the library’s resources and services. Friends raises money to support library programs and the purchase of equipment and technology through memberships, donations, and bookstore sales.