County staff reports read, “Our emergency response experts and the Buncombe County Fire Chiefs Association are of the opinion that such services can best be delivered via existing district community volunteer and professional fire departments providing fire protection and EMS services acting as single-source, full service and comprehensive responding agencies in accordance with the Buncombe County EMS System Plan as prepared in compliance with the State Office of Emergency Medical Services.”
The rationale behind the change was that fire districts had sprung up first. Then, ambulance services sprang up where needed. EMS Coordinator at Skyland Fire and Rescue, Tim Hinman likes to tell how funeral homes used to transport the county’s ailing to the hospital until a fatally-long response time for a heart attack patient prompted his father to get a Dodge panel van and a pathetic stretcher. Various communities started their own ambulance services, which grew mish-mash, each being willing to respond to calls anywhere as needed. By 1972, the county’s ambulance services had grown to the point of needing a director, who was a young Jerry Vehaun.
Riceville’s fire chief, Thad Lewis, said talk about realigning district lines had been underway since he became chief in 1993. There were overlaps introducing questions of authority, and there were dead zones, which County Attorney Mike Frue referred to as no man’s lands. Emergency vehicles would be dispatched for people living outside assigned zones, but those people weren’t paying taxes like their neighbors for the service.
Lewis and Frue shared that some people were living in three different districts. Making the boundaries for fire, EMS, and ambulance services the same would help the tax office. It would only have to assess nineteen service district levies instead of mixing and matching three different taxes, each of which varied, from district to district, between 9 and 15 cents per $100 valuation. The practice would also help with ISO inspections, because insurance ratings didn’t necessarily line up with tax, fire, or ambulance districts. Frue showed maps of all the new districts, indicating what former territories were being dissolved.
The smaller districts make more sense than countywide services for fire and rescue in light of reasonable response times and diseconomies of scale. According to the resolutions passed, “Counties are authorized to and may define any number of service districts in order to finance, provide, or maintain for such district services, facilities, and functions related to fire protection and ambulance and rescue services pursuant to North Carolina General Statutes Article 16, Chapter 153A.” Statutes also cap the taxing rates for fire districts at 10 or 15 cents.
But the new districts will be able to levy combined taxes for fire, EMS, and ambulance services at rates up to $1.50 per $100 valuation. Frue tried to soften the blow by saying some fire districts were formed in the 1960s, and 10 cents in 1960 is now worth 79.8 cents. Frue further assured that, although several people would be joining districts with special tax rates higher or lower than those they currently paid, nobody would be billed for any change until June, which is when the commissioners always vote on their budget. And at that time, the commissioners could totally change the tax rates for everybody.
Dr. David McClain inquired about what would be happening with the tax rates. He said he was a “stickler for grammar,” and it appeared the documents provided with the agenda had been largely “copied and pasted.” Following clarification on the cap, more citizens became alarmed.
Citizen Jerry Rice was suspicious, and he launched several accusations. He thought district-level, town-hall meetings should be held rather than the exercise in mass production the commissioners were then undertaking. Over 73,000 notices had been mailed out, but those who showed up trickled out the door as soon as their questions were answered. Rice said ten boxes of notices had been returned to the county, but Frue countered the noticing procedure requires it, as both property owners and tenants had to receive letters. Frue had himself responded to over 150 phone calls on the subject.
Rice was concerned the commissioners were going to use the new tax caps to the max. “This is going to be one of the highest taxes Buncombe County has ever had in the near future,” he said, “The potential for this tax hike is going to be greater than it’s ever been. Mark it down. I want that in the record.”
Of the headroom, Frue replied, “This board has had the wisdom not to tap into it, because it’s not needed.”
Activist Betty Jackson asked what hard costs would be involved with the changes. She asked if new department buildings with new rolling stock and equipment would be required or retired. Personnel were another consideration. Commissioner Miranda DeBruhl assured her the change was to districts and not to physical departments. Frue referred to the changes as merely “erasing lines on a map.” Nothing would affect current levels of service. Once again, needs are always in flux, but new infrastructure and personnel needs would be addressed at the appropriate time during each budget cycle. No budget amendments were anticipated until next year. The many chiefs on-hand met up with citizens who had questions or concerns about their new districts.
Prior to the meeting, there was some excitement. The room was full, with fire and rescue chiefs making up about half the audience. One of the chiefs took ill, but fortunately he was surrounded by fire and rescue chiefs, a few of whom helped him into the hall where he was treated. After the meeting, one of the chiefs who had been in the hall assured he would be OK, having suffered only a “medical emergency.”