Brittney Burns – Staff Writer

As a former volunteer firefighter, Commissioner Paul Higdon has advocated for reform in the county’s fire districts since first running for office. Now in his second term as commissioner, with a comprehensive fire study completed by Emergency Services Director Warren Cabe, Higdon may finally see that come to fruition in the coming year.

“Having previously served on the Burningtown/Iotla Fire Department, I appreciate the valuable service each volunteer brings to their respective fire departments,” said Higdon. “As a county commissioner for five years, I have tried to open a constructive dialogue with the full board to correct inconsistencies between the 11 departments but failed consistently in those attempts. With the approval of the latest budget and fire district tax increases, those inconsistencies were broadened. This year’s budget does include the creation and funding of a new Fire Task Force department that will hopefully establish funding and operational protocols for fire protection services equally to all citizens and fire department volunteers of Macon County.”

The Fire Task Force, under the direction of Cabe, will establish consistency across the board for all departments and will give a better understanding to the needs of the county as a whole and the best way for all 11 districts to work together to achieve those goals.

“I think the fire task force will look similar to the system now as we have already initiated trying to ‘get everything on the same page’ with standardized budget request forms, benchmark comparisons between departments, etc,” said Cabe. “Community based fire departments are important to Macon County and appear to be the most viable option for fire protection services here. Our goal should be to help them remain healthy and effective for the future.”

Higdon noted that that constituency and getting everyone on the same page is exactly what the county needs, which he believes was made more evident when the fire department in his district completed the construction of a new substation this year.

“I think the importance of this oversight was highlighted in this year’s budget process when a fire department requested and was granted funding to finance a substation that costs over $500,000 instead of the standard $150,000,” said Higdon. “It is my opinion that most of these funds should have been invested in equipment and volunteers that are crucial to fire protection services.”

According to Cabe, the issue with the new substation in Burningtown/Iotla is a prime example of why some sort of oversight is needed. As it stands, the Macon County Fire Marshal’s office inspects the departments annually, assists with fire investigations, and assists with preparations for rating inspections, etc. Day-to-day operations are managed within the department and not subject to involvement from the Fire Marshal’s office. Decisions are made by each department’s respective board. The Departments are considered as contractors to Macon County for fire protection.

In the contract the departments have with the county, #4 Section B of the contract for service states that the budget may be amended by the Board of Directors within the funds available except that any expenditure that establishes a new operating expense that will extend beyond the current fiscal year shall require the concurrence of the Macon County Fire Marshal’s office.

Burngingtown Fire Department asked for a tax increase this year for operating expenses on the substation built last year. While they didn’t need county approval for the construction of the substation, the additional operating expenses would have needed approval. When Burningtown presented its 2016-17 budget, they included plans to construct a new substation. That budget was approved, which would mean assumed approval by commissioners for the additional expenses generated.

Cabe wants to eliminate the assumptions and hopes the fire task force will address some of those issues. Recommendation #5 of the Fire Study is for the Board of Commissioners to provide specific guidance as to what expenditure would meet the definition of “concurrence.”

“The combination fire protection system we have with services provided by mostly volunteers supplemented by a few select career staff is the most financially viable option for Macon County,” said Cabe. “If this system can grow and meet the demands for service and continue to thrive it will provide the most service possible from moderate funding sources.”

Commission Vice-Chair Ronnie Beale noted that the fire task force will be a resource available for all fire departments.

“With the establishing of the Fire Department Task Force that was funded in the recently passed budget, by the majority of the county commissioners, this will be one of the major steps in assisting our community and town fire departments,” said Beale. “They will be working with the Fire Commission and the boards of the fire departments to assist them in many ways. One of those being bringing regular reports to the commissioners from the department. The demand on all of our 11 departments are increasing at record pace. It is more important than ever that he county commissioners make sure these dedicated volunteers and those whose are working for a fire department be supplied with the equipment to continue to provide this  great service to Macon County all the while making sure the taxpayers’ dollars are being spent wisely. Our fire departments are one the best use of tax dollars for the services they provide. Looking ahead it certainly appears the demand for this great service is only going to grow.”

Cabe noted that the problems in Macon County are something seen across the nation and is prevalent in fire departments which are primary manned by volunteers.

“Any issues we are facing in Macon County are probably not new issues for the fire service,” said Cabe. “Departments across the country are experiencing shortages of volunteers and difficult budgetary conditions. Adaptation and change often is not easy, but is necessary to ensure future success and progress.”

Commissioner Gary Shields noted that starting over is ideal in a situation like this, to do away with the “this is how it has been done” and start fresh.

“I think when we start from scratch, there are other counties similar to ours who would be excellent resources with plans,” said Shields. “I am sure the state will share their expertise and re-inventing the wheel should be minimum. I feel we have excellent leadership within the county and communities.  I am looking forward to the ‘The County Improvement Plan’ that is soon to begin and this team needs to have a voice and input into this ‘equitable question.’ I have reservations that equity will be reached due to the fact that each community has its own uniqueness that includes population and square miles.”

Macon County Commission Chair Jim Tate noted that considerable tax dollars are spent through the county’s 11 departments. In 2016, expenditures at the 11 fire departments totaled $3,527,586. With more than $3 million being spent annually for fire protection, Tate wants to ensure those tax dollars are being spent as efficiently as possible.

“Because there are 11 volunteer fire departments that are funded primarily by county tax dollars, we, as county commissioners need to be concerned and proactive in ensuring that our tax funds are spent wisely,” said Tate.  “All of the departments in our county are currently doing an excellent job in providing property and life saving services, and we want to continue to see them do this.  However, we need to ensure consistency throughout all of the departments in regards to management and funding, so that we can continue to provide our current fire departments the tools and funds that they need to be successful. The recent fire services survey conducted by Cabe made some excellent suggestions on improvements that could be made to enhance our current system, and the board of commissioners will be taking a closer look at these suggestions in this upcoming year.”

The differences in all 11 department will be focus of the fire task force. The land area served by the departments vary from eight square miles in the Mountain Valley District to 78 miles for the West Macon Department. The number of structures range from 566 in Mountain Valley to 8,240 in the Franklin District. The cost per response also varies greatly. The lowest is $368 per response in the Franklin District to $1,577 in the Nantahala District. The Franklin District has the largest population at 16,854 compared to the lowest at 1,357 in the Mountain Valley District. Scaly Mountain, Nantahala and Mountain Valley all had the fewest number of response calls at 145 responses in 2016 compared to the Franklin District, which responded to 2,230 calls. The expenditures for each department also differs from department to department. Mountain Valley reported the lowest budgeted expenditures in 2016 at $153,837 compared to Franklin, which reported $834,729 in expenditures.

In the entire county, there were 17 paid employees between the 11 departments, with Franklin credited with seven employees and three departments, Mountain Valley, Nantahala, and Scaly Mountain, not having any paid employees. Across the county, there were 349 volunteers charged with fire protection in Macon County. The Cowee Department had the most volunteers at 45 and Scaly Mountain had the fewest at 22.

Compensation for volunteers shows the most discrepancies across departments. Two departments, Nantahala and Otto, offer no compensation for volunteers. Highlands and Scaly both offer a flat fee, $2,400 annually in Highlands and $400 annually in Scaly Mountain, but also require 40 percent participation in Highlands and 70 percent in Scaly. Other departments offer a per call pay ranging from $5 for Mountain Valley and Clarks Chapel to $16 per call in Cullasaja. Mountain Valley caps volunteers at $25 per month. Franklin is the only department to pay different based on fire calls or medical calls.

Snapshot of Macon County’s 11 fire departments: 

Burningtown-Iotla

Number of stations: 2

Population Served: 3,107

Land Area served: 43

Number of structures: 1,208

Fire District Value: $217,072,617

Cost per capita: $72

Cost per response: $892

Number of volunteers: 30

How much each volunteer is compensated for responding to a call: $7; $10 for officers

Number of paid employees: 1

Number of response calls in 2016: 215

Total budgeted expenditures in 2016: $191,606

Clarks Chapel

Number of stations: 2

Population Served: 5,798

Land Area served: 23

Number of structures: 2.515

Fire District Value: $414,449,270

Cost per capita: $53

Cost per response: $685

Number of volunteers: 28

How much each volunteer is compensated for responding to a call: $5

Number of paid employees: 2

Number of response calls in 2016: 452

Total budgeted expenditures in 2016: $305,936

Cowee

Number of stations: 3

Population Served: 3623

Land Area served: 50

Number of structures: 1,493

Fire District Value: $273,754,295

Cost per capita: $81

Cost per response: $1,017

Number of volunteers: 45

How much each volunteer is compensated for responding to a call: $10 per call if they meet the minimum training standards

Number of paid employees: 1

Number of response calls in 2016: 290

Total budgeted expenditures in 2016: $288,115

Cullasaja

Number of stations: 1

Population Served: 3,623

Land Area served: 51

Number of structures: 2,797

Fire District Value: $460,329,634

Cost per capita: $149

Cost per response: $1,202

Number of volunteers: 47

How much each volunteer is compensated for responding to a call: $16

Number of paid employees: 1

Number of response calls in 2016: 449

Total budgeted expenditures in 2016: $720,903

Franklin 

Number of stations: 1

Population Served: 16,854

Land Area served: 40

Number of structures: 8,240

Fire District Value: $1,538,197,288

Cost per capita: $49

Cost per response: $368

Number of volunteers: 30

How much each volunteer is compensated for responding to a call: $10 per fire call; $5 per medical call

Number of paid employees: 7

Number of response calls in 2016: 2,230

Total budgeted expenditures in 2016: $834,729

Highlands

Number of stations: 2

Population Served: 12,437

Land Area served: 69

Number of structures: 5,548

Fire District Value: $3,452,929,533

Cost per capita: $33

Cost per response: $660

Number of volunteers: 27

How much each volunteer is compensated for responding to a call: Attend 40 percent of calls in six month period, get $1,200. If not, get $15 per call

Number of paid employees: 2

Number of response calls in 2016: 627

Total budgeted expenditures in 2016: $413,000

Mountain Valley

Number of stations: 2

Population Served: 1,357

Land Area served: 8

Number of structures: 566

Fire District Value: $102,381,789

Cost per capita: $120

Cost per response: $1,122

Number of volunteers: 27

How much each volunteer is compensated for responding to a call: $5 per call, max of $25 a month

Number of paid employees: 0

Number of response calls in 2016: 145

Total budgeted expenditures in 2016: $153,837

Nantahala

Number of stations: 2

Population Served: 2,879

Land Area served: 74

Number of structures: 1,216

Fire District Value: $342,008,252

Cost per capita: $79

Cost per response: $1,577

Number of volunteers: 37

How much each volunteer is compensated for responding to a call: $0

Number of paid employees: 0

Number of response calls in 2016: 145

Total budgeted expenditures in 2016: $229,300\

Otto

Number of stations: 2

Population Served: 7,514

Land Area served: 65

Number of structures: 1,434

Fire District Value: $498,310,585

Cost per capita: $43

Cost per response: $735

Number of volunteers: 32

How much each volunteer is compensated for responding to a call: $0

Number of paid employees: 2

Number of response calls in 2016: 439

Total budgeted expenditures in 2016: $324,637

Scaly Mountain

Number of stations:1 `

Population Served: 1,860

Land Area served: 18

Number of structures: 770

Fire District Value: $246,182,285

Cost per capita: $95

Cost per response: $1,225

Number of volunteers: 22

How much each volunteer is compensated for responding to a call: $400 per year for members who make 70 percent of emergency calls, 70 percent of training and 70 percent of ”required activities”

Number of paid employees: 0

Number of response calls in 2016: 145

Total budgeted expenditures in 2016: $195,923

West Macon 

Number of stations: 2

Population Served: 5,364

Land Area served: 78

Number of structures: 2,207

Fire District Value: $442,084,418

Cost per capita: $54

Cost per response: $761

Number of volunteers: 34

How much each volunteer is compensated for responding to a call: $10

Number of paid employees: 1

Number of response calls in 2016: 381

Total budgeted expenditures in 2016: $282,600

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