Buncombe rethinks county fire and rescue districts

Creative commons photo by NCDOTcommunications

At a lengthy meeting on Tuesday, Oct. 20, the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners discussed the futures of 25 county fire and emergency service districts.

“The goal is simple: to simplify and consolidate,” explained County Attorney Michael Frue. “Everyone needs to understand that there is no service change. There is no change in tax rate. We have 35 service districts for 20 tax districts. That’s the mess we’re trying to correct.”

Current Buncombe County fire service districts.
Current Buncombe County fire service districts.

Frue explained at a meeting last month that these changes are at the request of the Fire Chiefs Association and would consolidate adjacent fire districts with the same tax rates, reducing the total number of districts down to 20, and cleaning up a “60-year mess” of confusing boundary lines.

Riceville Fire Chief Thad Lewis explained that the county’s current situation is a mess for everyone: firefighters, EMTs and tax offices alike.

“With the current system in place, there’s question of authority,” Lewis explained. It makes chiefs question: “Do we have authority to send an ambulance to this tax district?”

The proposed new system would consolidate adjacent districts with the same tax rate, cleaning up the mess that began as more people moved to previously undeveloped areas, creating a need for more districts.

“This just codifies what’s currently in place,” said Frue.

Under this proposal, 14 new fire protection and ambulance rescue service districts will be established, five current districts will be abolished (as they’re absorbed by the new districts) and six already established districts will merge with existing ambulance rescue service districts.

For example, currently Upper Hominy is divided into two districts. Both districts are set at a 12.5 cent tax rate. Under the proposal, these two districts will be combined. All departments in the area will remain the same.
For example, currently Upper Hominy is divided into two districts. Both districts are set at a 12.5 cent tax rate. Under the proposal, these two districts will be combined. All departments in the area will remain the same.

Both at the meeting and over the phone, Frue says he has gotten questions ranging from tax increases to annexation.

“That’s not the case,” he continued. “We created this plan so that residents would see no change in their day-to-day lives.”

The only district that will see a slight change is the Riceville district, which includes an area formerly served by the now-closed Haw Creek department. In this district, five properties will see a slight tax increase for these services, raising from 9 to 11 cents. The rest of the properties will remain at the same rate.

One member of the public asked if this change allows the commissioners to increase taxes, and Frue explained that, while the rate is capped at $1.50, the current countywide rate is 60.4 cents plus the additional 9-15 cent fees for specific districts, and there are currently no plans or reasons to raise any of the rates.

Several members of the public expressed concerns that the $1.50 cap would allow the county to raise their rates far above what is currently being paid by residents. But Frue explained that the $1.50 cap was set about 20 years ago, and that cap has nothing to do with the proposed changes.

“There is no plan to change taxes,” he said. “And, even so, taxes can’t just raise instantly.”

Down the road, if the county should decide to raise tax rates for these services, there would be a public hearing for that as well, at which residents could then voice their concerns.

Commissioner Holly Jones added, “Tax rates have been the anticipated concern of residents, but from my understanding, this is the way to do what needs to be done.”

As Frue presented the rest of the districts, he stressed: “Again, the idea is to make these uniform.”

At the hearing for the West Buncombe district, resident Betty Jackson got up to ask the commissioners: Will the county be selling any buildings or constructing buildings for the new departments?

“I think we need to make a distinction between districts and departments,” said Commissioner Miranda DeBruhl.

All that’s being changed is the districts. No new departments will be added or removed.

“We’re just erasing [and redrawing] lines on a map,” added Frue.

The commissioners deferred the vote on the future of these districts until their Tuesday, Nov. 3 meeting.

Click the links below for a map and a summary of each district:

Proposed new districts:

Removed districts: 

All of these districts have been absorbed by the new districts

  • North Central
  • North East
  • North West
  • South Buncombe
  • Hominy

Districts being combined with rescue services:

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About Hayley Benton
Current freelance journalist and artist. Former culture/entertainment reporter at the Asheville Citizen-Times and former news reporter at Mountain Xpress. Also a coffee drinker, bad photographer, teller of stupid jokes and maker-upper of words. I can be reached at hayleyebenton [at] gmail.com. Follow me @HayleyTweeet

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4 thoughts on “Buncombe rethinks county fire and rescue districts

    • Foobar99

      Taxes are the hallmark of a civilized society; one that is trying to improve the lives of it’s citizens.

  1. Big Al

    This reminds me of when the “save our heritage” folks who (wisely) shot down the creation of a Swannanoa town government followed up by trying to (unwisely) get rid of their paid firefighters and replace them with volunteers, all in the name of “tax reduction”.

    Some things SHOULD be paid for by our taxes: professional firefighters and EMTs.

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