Service overlay tax district would aid rural fire departments

Published 12:00 am Thursday, April 4, 2019

By Jim Buice
For the Clemmons Courier

Remember the days when Clemmons had a fire tax of 2 cents?

Jerry Brooks does. The longtime fire chief was there when the fire department changed its status in the early 1980s.

“Clemmons has had a fire tax since 1983,” said Brooks, who joined the Clemmons Volunteer Fire Department in 1971 before becoming volunteer chief in 1979 and then paid chief a few years later. “The referendum for that fire tax being created was in 1982 by a petition of the resident freeholders in a vote that passed 6-1. It was initially 2 cents, now it’s 6 cents, and it took us 27, 28 years to get to the 6 cents.”

Certainly, things have changed quite a bit over the years in many ways.

“When we started there wasn’t but about 7,000 people living out here, and now there’s over 29,000,” Brooks said at last Monday night’s Clemmons Village Council meeting. “Our community itself used to have a whole bunch of volunteers. The makeup of our community has changed greatly over the last 25 years. We had to hire some folks. That’s what got our fire tax rate up to 6 cents.”

And now, there’s a proposed fire service overlay tax district for those served by Forsyth County’s rural fire departments. The county commissioners added a 0.36-cent fire tax to areas served by the county’s 17 rural volunteer fire departments in response to a request from fire chiefs, including Brooks, to fund additional fire suppression services.

The commissioners are considering a tax overlay system that would remove the current 0.36-cent tax and add that 0.36-cent tax to the overlay district. Those who are now paying the tax will not see an increase in their taxes.

“What’s collected from Clemmons for fire protection will be staying in Clemmons,” Brooks said. “The overlay service district is another vehicle. The current fiscal year is 6 cents (for Clemmons) with a third of cent to put a second support suppression vehicle in place in the county to support all our rural fire departments. There are two paid people on each vehicle 24 hours a day. There’s been a lot of discussion among fire chiefs about needing more personnel, and our board supports that.”

The two support trucks are positioned at Mount Tabor/Meadowlark Road in the western part of the county and in Kernersville. There has been some talk about a third support vehicle, but that would increase the 0.36-cent tax to 0.77 cents.

“The two trucks are working well, but I’d like to see this go slow.” Brooks said.

County Fire Marshal Gary Styers, who lives in Clemmons, said that the county was looking for a way to share the costs for needed personnel while being sensitive to raising taxes.

“What we tried to do was find a very cost-effective way to add staffing without having to increase the local fire tax districts,” said Styers, who stressed this would not take away money from local volunteer fire departments such as Clemmons.

This tax only affects those served by rural volunteer fire departments. Those in the city limits of Winston-Salem, Kernersville, Walkertown, Rural Hall and King will not be affected by this tax because they are served by municipal fire departments.

“I think we ought to support this 100 percent,” said councilman Mike Combest. “This is a vital service, and we know from experience that every penny we spend in fire protection is spent very effectively and very economically. We get a big bang for every dollar.”

And what if Clemmons didn’t want to be a part of the overlay fire district?

“There’s no real answer,” said David Kasper, Village attorney. “It’s not defined in the statute.”

However, Brooks said, “If you wanted out, you can get out. You’ve got to start your own fire department.”

The Clemmons Fire Department, which was started in 1951, has two fire stations and serves an area of 32 square miles in Forsyth, Davidson and Davie counties. It was awarded a Class 3 rating last year, which is in the top 7 percent in the state.