The Forsyth County Board of Commissioners is considering a countywide fire service district, which, if approved, would start July 1.
“That is a way to provide countywide support to the volunteer system using the county’s small suppression force,” said Damon Sanders-Pratt, deputy county manager for Forsyth County. “This funding allows for the expansion of that small suppression force.”
Recently, Forsyth County invited the public to attend information sessions on a proposed “fire-service district overlay tax” for areas served by the county’s volunteer fire departments. The board of commissioners approved a 3-cents cap on the property tax rate for the proposed countywide fire service district on Thursday. There will be a public hearing on the proposal March 14.
People currently paying the 0.36 cents that county commissioners added to all fire tax areas served by the county’s rural volunteer fire departments for the 2018-2019 fiscal year would not see an increase in their taxes. That’s because the current 0.36 cent tax would be removed from the individual fire tax districts and added to the proposed countywide fire service district.
Also, residents within the city limits of Winston-Salem, Kernersville, Walkertown, Rural Hall and King would not be affected by this tax because they are served by municipal fire departments.
During one of the recent information sessions, Forsyth County Fire Marshal Gary Styers outlined several goals in terms of fire service in the county: a third truck for better coverage, more staff to obtain a 10 minutes/10 people benchmark, trained personnel for all types of events — fire, rescue, medical and hazardous — and continued efforts to find ways to recruit and retain volunteers.
A bit of history
Forsyth County created the Forsyth County Fire Department in 1951, but organized volunteer fire service has been available in the county since 1949.
There are 22 fire-tax districts and three fire-service districts served by 17 volunteer fire departments in the county. Volunteer fire departments servicing the county exclude Winston-Salem and Kernersville.
Fire-tax districts are approved by voters. The fire-service districts were established by the board of commissioners because they were areas that were uncovered districts.
Depending on the district, rates currently range from 5.86 to 14.36 cents. The cap is 15 cents per $100 of property valuation.
When the county placed the 0.36 cent rate increase on all fire tax districts in the county to expand the county’s volunteer fire department system for the current fiscal year, it enabled the Forsyth County Fire Department to add a support vehicle.
Now, the county has a fire-suppression unit of two support vehicles known by the fire department as 109 and 209.
The 109 support vehicle is stationed in the eastern part of Forsyth County at a station in Kernersville, and 209 is in the western part of the county at the Vienna Fire Department on Robinhood Road.
Although there were discussions last year in committees made up of fire chiefs and county commissioners’ meetings about the 0.36 cent rate increase, some firefighters said it came as a shock to them.
Styers said it was always the understanding that the 0.36 cents was a temporary measure that would be removed from all the fire tax districts and put on a fire service district.
Forsyth County Commissioner Richard Linville, who was a firefighter from about 1968 to 1980 said, “It appears that the general concept of it (proposed fire service district) is something that’s workable. It’s going to cost some additional money, but it also enhances overall fire protection in the unincorporated areas of the county.”
But Linville said that he will wait on information from the public sessions to get a better idea of what fire departments and people think of the proposal before deciding how he will vote.
Comments from firefighters
Several firefighters spoke of their appreciation for the support from the 109 and 209 vehicles.
Assistant Fire Chief Steve Walton of Salem Chapel Fire Department said the service is needed and is a great resource for his department.
But he has concerns about where the proposed third truck would be placed in the county.
At one of the information sessions, there was talk of perhaps putting it in Rural Hall.
“We feel like maybe Walkertown would be a better place for that third one,” Walton said.
He believes the proposed fire service district will help his department, but would like the county commissioners to consider a different system to replace all the individual fire tax districts with their different rates, saying that the current system is not fair to all districts.
He likes the idea of possibly consolidating the individual districts into five.
“The problem we have is that there are a lot of fire departments that are benefiting from the way the system is now,” Walton said. “They get a lot of money…. It’s not fair the way the money is being spent in the county.”
Salem Chapel has among the the smallest tax bases in Forsyth.
“We don’t have a lot of expensive housing development or anything like that,” Walton said. “We’re rural. Farm land just doesn’t have high taxes. “
He said that the Salem Chapel district doesn’t have million dollar homes like some of the districts with larger tax bases.
Assistant Fire Chief Steve Williams of Lewisville Fire Department sees the proposed countywide district as an opportunity to work with other volunteer fire departments to provide more efficient service in the county than in the past.
But Williams said that if Forsyth County goes beyond having two people on the support trucks, it would probably be cheaper for Lewisville Fire Department to hire people rather than the county.
Fire Chief Jimmy Barrow of Piney Grove Fire & Rescue Department said that some folks have suggested switching to a paid fire service program, where firefighters work full time and part time.
“But the cost figure just really skyrockets when you do that,” Barrow said. “I don’t think the county is ready to go that route and I don’t think the people (residents) are ready to pay that bill.”