Giving federal funds to fire departments not common

Aug. 19, 2013 @ 08:24 AM

On Monday, Aug. 5, the Caldwell County Board of Commissioners is expected to award three fire departments a portion of funds the county receives from the federal government to partially make up for the property taxes that the county can’t collect for the acreage that is part of the Pisgah National Forest.

When the board voted 4-1 to divide 30 percent of annual federal money, called “payment in lieu of taxes,” among the Collettsville, Patterson and Blowing Rock Volunteer Fire Departments, Commissioner Clay Bollinger objected, calling it unfair to other volunteer fire departments in the county. At its coming meeting on Monday, the budget amendment to make it official is on the board’s consent agenda.

A survey of Caldwell’s neighboring counties in the Pisgah forest shows that providing part of that federal money to local fire departments is at least unusual.

Avery County, a majority of which lies within the Pisgah National Forest, received $31,147 from the U.S. Department of the Interior for its 29,834 acres for fiscal year 2013-14. Each year Avery gives the entirety of those funds to the school system, Avery County Manager Robert Wiseman said.

Burke County, which includes 49,637 acres in the Pisgah, received $53,474 in PILT funds in 2013-14 and added the money to the county’s general fund, which pays for most county operations.

Watauga County, which received $21,957 for its 9,186 acres in the Pisgah for 2013-14, also puts the money in its general fund.

The federal government says that the payments are to help local governments carry out such vital services as firefighting, police protection, search and rescue operations and construction of public schools and roads. Caldwell County has been receiving the payments for 36 years, and until now put all of the money into its general fund.

For fiscal year 2013-14, Caldwell County received $44,217 for the 49,803 acres within the county that are part of the Pisgah National Forest; 30 percent of that comes to $13,265.10. The Collettsville Volunteer Fire Department will receive the largest portion ($7,959.06), followed by Patterson ($3,979.53) and Blowing Rock ($1,326.51).

County Commissioner Randy Church, who introduced the change at the Aug. 5 meeting, said the PILT money will help the departments keep up with the costly demands of providing services in their mountainous territory.

Chief Reggie Ford of the Patterson Volunteer Fire Department said the main challenge comes from covering the vast tracts of forest land, all of which is open to hikers and campers, including the Wilson’s Creek area, which is often promoted as a tourist attraction by Caldwell County.

The departments are also responsible for the initial response to any wildfires in the area, having to hold off the fire until U.S. Forest Service firefighters arrive.

Ford said the chiefs had only learned this year that the county had received the money for the past 36 years, and they felt the departments should get a share because the federal government clearly stipulates that among the uses for the money are fire, search and rescue services. The money wasn’t “being used for what the DOI intended it for,” he said.

“We have 49,000 acres of land in our fire district that pay zero tax dollars, but we still have to protect that land,” Ford said, adding that the money will help reduce pressure to raise the local fire districts’ tax rates.

Mike Cook, a board member at Patterson VFD, said that part of the difficulty is that there are a number of small private properties and homes within the forest boundaries, and properties, like his own, that share boundaries with the forest.

“The county can afford for a portion of that funding to come and help offset the cost of fire protection to the landowners in our district,” said Cook. “Our contention was that instead of us raising taxes on property owners, if we can get that PILT funding, it can at least offset or prevent us from going up any time in the near future.”