County debates fire district lines

By Jeff Linville - jlinville@mtairynews.com
Pilot Knob Fire Chief Derrick Manuel, right, and board chairman Chet Jessup speak to county commissioners this week. The county board thinks Pilot Knob does a great job but worries its district extends too far from the town. - Jeff Linville | The News

DOBSON — Imagine a fire occurring a mile from a fire station, but when the call is made to 9-1-1, a different station five miles away responds.

That kind of scenario could take place with some of the boundary lines drawn for fire districts in Surry County.

The Surry County Board of Commissioners met this week with local volunteer fire departments to hear about budget needs. During one of the sessions, Commissioner Van Tucker brought up this potential conflict with boundaries.

How does Pilot Knob have a district that runs down Shoals Road into the heart of the Shoals community, asked Tucker, who lives in that area. The Shoals Department is a lot closer.

Fire Marshal Doug Jones, who has more than 30 years of experience in the county, said many of the fire districts were set up in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Members of the fire department would go door to door collecting fire dues. There weren’t as many districts then, so the boundaries changed when new ones were added.

The fire department tax didn’t come along until the 1980s, Jones added.

“The Pilot Knob district comes down to your house in Shoals?” Commissioner Eddie Harris asked Tucker. “Your house would burn down before they could reach there.”

Not really, answered Jones. Whenever there is a structure fire, 9-1-1 pages out the three closest departments for help, so in that case Shoals would be called anyway.

That is probably true, Harris acknowledged, but Shoals isn’t getting funded for it.

In this example, Commissioner Tucker would be paying a fire tax to Pilot Knob, but it could be Shoals that is first on the scene, saving the house and possibly saving a life. And the closest station wouldn’t get any of that fire tax.

Pilot Knob’s tax base is the largest in Surry County and about three and a half times bigger than Shoals at $446 million compared to $129.5 million. Franklin is second at $401.8 million and Bannertown third at $369.9 million.

That is because Pilot Knob is the only one with a municipality in its district, noted County Manager Chris Knopf.

The commissioners said they didn’t have a problem with the job that Pilot Knob is doing. Obviously, with a fire-protection class of ISO 6 in the county and ISO 5 inside the Pilot town limits, the department is doing well. It just may make more sense to give territory in Shoals’ backyard to Shoals.

That prompted Harris to ask Jones if the county board could redraw the lines.

It would require three things, he said. The folks in the affected area would have to sign a petition indicating they wanted this to happen. Two, the closest fire department would have to vote to accept the new territory into its boundaries. Three, the current department servicing the area would have to vote to let go of it.

Tucker said in his experience getting any group to give up funding is “like pulling eye teeth.”

And, he added, getting folks to sign a petition might be hard considering that Shoals has a higher tax rate.

Right now, Pilot Knob has a rate of 4 cents per $100 of valued property, while Shoals is 6.5 cents. With an extra $12,500 Shoals Fire Chief Adrian Wall mentioned wanting next year, that would add another penny to make it 7.5 cents.

That’s because of footprint, Wall said to the board. Shoals has a much smaller district, so the rate is higher. If the district had more tax base, then the rate per household would go down.

Sarah Bowen, county finance director, said one penny for Pilot Knob is equal to about $43,000, while Shoals is about $12,600.

Harris said it might be possible for the county to bypass the three requirements by acting as the tax administrator. If the commissioners did away with the tax districts, the fire department coverage area would cease to exist, too, he mused. Then the board potentially could put the districts back in place with slightly tweaked boundaries.

This week’s meetings were simply for gathering information, and no decisions were made. A final vote on the annual fiscal budget is expected to come in June.

Pilot Knob Fire Chief Derrick Manuel, right, and board chairman Chet Jessup speak to county commissioners this week. The county board thinks Pilot Knob does a great job but worries its district extends too far from the town.
https://www.mtairynews.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/04/web1_Fire-Pilot-Knob_filtered.jpgPilot Knob Fire Chief Derrick Manuel, right, and board chairman Chet Jessup speak to county commissioners this week. The county board thinks Pilot Knob does a great job but worries its district extends too far from the town. Jeff Linville | The News

By Jeff Linville

jlinville@mtairynews.com

Jeff is the news editor and can be reached at 415-4692.

Jeff is the news editor and can be reached at 415-4692.