By Stan Welch – For only the second time in twenty two years, the Piedmont Public Service Commission voted Monday night to approve a budget that increases the millage for fire protection by two mills. The vote will result in an increase of eight dollars in taxes on a home valued at $100,000.
The budget, as presented by district administrator and fire chief Tracy Wallace, was questioned by commission members, such as Rudy Rhodes, who asked if there was no way to present a budget that didn’t include a millage increase.
Commission Chairman Ed Poore defended the budget, saying that a variety of factors both justify and alleviate the increase. One key factor is that the current sewer repair and upgrade project will result in significant reductions in the sewer millage paid by sewer customers, as well as a reduction of $34 a year in the sewer fees charged customers.
In addition, the budget reflects the decision by Wallace and the department not to fill a position vacated by retirement, even though the burden on the department will be significant, according to Commissioner Al McAbee. “I am confident our fire fighters will take up all the slack they can, but this impact will be felt. Sometimes, we just have to do unpleasant things in order to make it better for the community and the people we serve.”
Chief Wallace stressed the impact of the loss of a firefighter as well. “We have a great department right now, but we can’t start taking steps backwards. Our job is to provide protection to the people of the district as well as ensure the safety of our firefighters,” he said.
Poore added that the majority, up to three fourths, of the district’s expenses are fixed, such as insurance costs and other employee benefits. “We have a relatively small area to work in as far as cutting costs, and I think the department is running about as frugally as it can right now.”
Under the proposed budget, which will require a public hearing and two more readings before it is adopted, the District’s sewer customers will pay 6 mills for the street lights in the area, and will pay 5.8 mills to the Metropolitan Sewer SubDistrict, which has taken over the sewer system and its operation. Those customers used to pay 24 mills for sewer and light services. They will also see their sewer surcharge reduced from $72 to $38.
Commissioner Lib Pack voted for the budget on first reading, but said she was not happy with it. “I wish there was another way, but this needs to be done for the department.” Commissioner Rhodes added that while he is also unhappy with the budget as it appears now, he is pleased to see the commission working together to address the problem. “I plan to continue working with the other commissioners and with Chief Wallace as the budget moves along.”
The two mills is designed to relieve pressure on the District’s contingency reserves, and would account for about $30,000 of that reserve. The commissioners also voted Monday night to make the mandatory payment of $20,935 to the Other Post Employment Benefits (OPEB) fund, formerly known as the GASB program.
Poore, in recommending passage of the budget, said that in light of the nine million dollars in new and improved sewer services, with the attendant reduction in those costs to the citizens, he didn’t think anyone should have a complaint about the millage increase.
The two additional readings of the budget are scheduled for June 11 and June 25.