By Tim Gardner
The below interview was conducted with Avery County Fire Commission chairman Bill Beuttell about various topics including the commission’s role, its operating procedures and its achievements, challenges and future goals. High Country Press gives special thanks to Avery Fire Departments Coordinator Charlie Franklin for his assistance with this article.
HCP (High Country Press): What is your personal background and what does your practical experiences in county service entail?
Beuttell: I’ve been an Avery County resident for 37 years. I’m a Christmas tree farmer. I served three terms as a County Commissioner. I’m also currently a supervisor on Avery Soil and Water board (elected) and I serve as chairman of the Blue Ridge RC&D. I’m a college graduate. And I’ve been married for 37 years to wife, B.J., and we have two sons, Will and Adam.
HCP: How did the existence of a fire commission in Avery County originate?
Beuttell: The fire commission was assembled when the County Commissioners and the Fireman’s Association felt a need to be someone or a group to focus on the needs of the fire service. In 2013, the Rescue Squad was added to the fire commission.
HCP: In detail, what are the jobs and responsibilities of a fire commission?
Beuttell: To combine prior years actual expenditures with current budgetary request and allocate tax funds to adequately fund the financial needs of each respective department. We engage in regular dialog with paid employees, volunteers and fellow Board members to assess the current needs as well as consider future needs for the Fire & Rescue Services and begin preparation for those needs.
The fire commission also meets our mission statement, which is: The mission of the Avery County Fire Commission is to insure that the highest level of fire protection and prevention is provided to the people of Avery County. The Avery County Fire Commission will promote this mission by guaranteeing that fire tax revenues provided to each VFD are used to provide the resources necessary to achieve maximum service. Maximum service will be realized through the most effective and efficient operation of each VFD by developing, implementing and enforcing administrative, financial and operational guidelines. The mission of the Avery County Fire Commission also includes the responsibility to advise the Avery County Board of Commissioners on fire protection service and to communicate any fire protection concerns to the Board of Commissioners, as well as, the community at large; thereby enhancing fire protection and safety education throughout Avery County.
In addition, it is the mission of the Avery County Fire Commission to provide quality emergency rescue response service in Avery County through administrative and financial supervision and support of the volunteer rescue squad(s) and to communicate any concerns to the Avery County Board of Commissioners in effort to protect and enhance rescue services.
HCP: How would you define a successful fire commission?
Beuttell: A Fire Commission that fulfills and/or exceeds the Avery County
Fire Commission’s mission statement and adequately funds the departments’ current year needs while understanding the future of the Fire & Rescue protection is changing. Volunteerism is declining on local state and national level. All credit goes to past and current volunteers and employees; they do, and have done a great job. But I believe as we head into the years/decades ahead we will need to try more incentive programs for the volunteers and hire more paid staff.
HCP: A three-part question… How are officers and staff members selected for the Avery Fire Commission? What are the mandated requirements to serve on its Board such as service in firefighting or other emergency services or service in other County organizations? And how long does a fire commission Board member hold a seat?
Beuttell: Parts One and Two-Commission membership shall consist of five (5) persons who are residents of Avery County, two (2) of which shall be consumers appointed by The Avery County Board Of Commissioners and two (2) firemen approved by the Avery County Fire Association and appointed by The Avery County Board Of County Commissioners. The remaining member shall be chosen by the other four (4) sitting members of the Commission. In case of a deadlock or failure of the seated members to act within sixty (60) days, a Committee composed of The Chairman of the Board of Commissioners and another Commissioner, the president of the fire association and another member of the fire association and a presiding District Court Judge will make the appointment. The County Manager shall serve as a Non-Voting Ex-Officio Member and Liaison to The Board of County Commissioners. No elected official will be allowed to serve on The Fire Commission. Any member of the Commission can be a member of a rescue unit. However, membership in a rescue unit is not a prerequisite for any appointment.
Part Three-One of the fire association appointees shall be appointed for a two (2) year term; the other shall be appointed for a one (1) year term. At the end of the one year term the appointment shall be for a two (2) year term thereafter. One of the Commissioners’ appointees will serve a two (2) year term and the other a one (1) year term. At the end of that term the appointment shall be for a two (2) year term thereafter. The at large member appointed by the four seated members, shall serve a two year term. Excessive absenteeism, that is unexcused absence from two (2) of three (3) consecutive, regularly scheduled meetings, or 33% of the meetings per year, shall be grounds for removal from the Commission. Recurring non-compliance with Commission decisions or duly adopted policy enacted by a majority vote of the Commission shall be grounds for removal from the Commission by the Board of Commissioners.
HCP: What do you consider the top achievements of the Avery County Fire Commission during your tenure as a member and Chairman?
Beuttell: The prior Boards did a great job reducing/eliminating debt within the departments. We have tried to keep that ship sailing smoothly so-to-speak. We have/ are increasing the life insurance/ death benefits for volunteers and paid staff, implementing a 401K retirement program for paid staff, night shifts and stressing efficiency within the departments.
HCP: Is the Avery Fire Commission’s most immediate challenge the same that any fire commission or related organization continuously has obtaining more funding?
Beuttell: Yes. The challenge is a truly dependable source of funding.
In the past, Fire & Rescue taxes have been lowered after property revaluations have occurred. The current commissioners have been very easy to work with and understand our needs. They boosted the fire tax from 6.7 cents on per one hundred dollar valuation to 7cents per one hundred dollar valuation and it is appreciated. If the Commissioners can leave it at 7cents after the next revaluations, we would be in a good position to plan ahead.
HCP: What criteria does the fire commission use to determine how much funding it recommends that the county commissioners give each of the county’s fire departments?
Beuttell: The Avery County Fire Commission reviews each Fire or Rescue Department’s budget request, their call volume and monthly expenditures up to that point in the budget year and estimates their expenditures for the rest of the current budget year and their expenditures for the last three years to try to come up with the need of each department. The Fire Commission has tried to work within the parameter of the incoming Fire & Rescue tax revenue. Some of our expenses are increasing at a faster rate than revenue, so we have to adapt to the changing economic environment. Due to the increase cost of fire apparatus, we have cut from two new engine/tankers to one to meet budget and other equipment needs and/or paid staff.
HCP: Why is it recommended to the county commissioners that some fire departments get more funding than others each year? Is it based on their immediate or crucial needs?
Beuttell: Yes, it is on a need basis. Example: A department may need a roof this budget year but the other departments don’t need a roof. The department that needs a roof would be budgeted the amount to cover the roof expenditure and the others would not. One department may have a higher call volume which means more expense such as vehicle fuel, heating fuel and wear and tear on the apparatuses in that department.
HCP: What does the fire commission do with any funds allocated that are not being spent or used?
Beuttell: The funds would stay in one of the accounts the Commission has (main account, land & buildings, debit reduction) and would be used for unexpected break downs of equipment or buildings and/or grounds, purchase needed equipment (which the commission encourages the departments to apply for on grants to pay half price instead of full price) and/or pay on accrued debt such as building loans. Some of the previous left over revenues have been used toward paid personnel to try to supplement the volunteers. In the last year, the fire commission has allocated approximately $200,000.00 above and beyond the budget, which represented 8 percent of the total $2.5 million budget.
HCP: A two-part question: Obviously, the county’s fire tax that was created in 1978 was very much needed and has been most helpful in keeping the county’s fire departments operating. But sometimes the county’s fire tax goes up or down. What determines if it increases or decreases? And how specifically does that affect the county’s fire departments?
Beuttell: Part One-There could be numerous things such as amounts needed in the budget, property tax revenue and or property revalues.
Part Two-The Fire/Rescue tax is the main revenue for the departments so it directly effects each department positively or negatively. The Fire tax revenue 5 percent per year. The departments’ expenses go up 5 percent to 10 percent per year. We hope the commissioners will not lower the Fire & Rescue tax rate after the re-evaluation.
HCP: What is your message to anyone who may question the need of a fire commission or how it operates?
Beuttell: The Fire/Rescue tax is the only tax that the citizens get more back than they pay on home insurance premiums. Consider not just the negatives that are spread about the Commission or the Fire/Rescue service. There are positives that have happened since the Fire Commission Board has been in place. Examples: All debit on equipment has been payed off and buildings (except the Frank Volunteer Fire Department’s new station) in the amount of approximately $2.8 million. The commission has purchased 40 pieces of rolling equipment (engine/tanker, service trucks, brush trucks, QRVs and ATVs.) at approximately $6,746,000.00. We’ve placed paid personnel in the departments to supplement the volunteers, which also made a push for the fire departments to try for lower ratings even in the rural areas where water is limited. For example, at the March 2009 County Commissioners meeting information was brought forward as follows. They are approximately 3,300 homes in Green Valley Fire District. Green Valley went from a 9 to a 7 rating that saved the taxpayers in that district approximately $214,000.00. Shortly after, Frank, Crossnore, Elk Park and Newland were able to lower theirs as well. Banner Elk and Linville Departments also have lower ratings in their pressurized hydrant areas and Fall Creek is striving to go lower as well.
HCP: How would you describe the working relationship of the Avery Fire Commission with the county’s fire departments, the Fire Marshall and other county government officials?
Beuttell: I believe we have a great relationship with the County Commissioners, County Manager and Fire Marshall’s Office. Our relationship with the departments is solid and strong; we don’t make all perfect decisions and from time-to time the departments have issues with us. We listen to the concerns and make adjustments that we feel are necessary.
HCP: What are your future goals and objectives for the Avery Fire Commission in general and the county’s fire service in particular such as perhaps having all firefighters and fire department staffs full-time and paid?
Beuttell: When the Fire Commission presented a budget to the County commissioners a few years ago, the volunteer rate nationally was about 65 percent. I’m sure it’s less now and declining. To keep Avery County a volunteer service, we are going to have to create an environment to bring new volunteers in fueled by a stable funding mechanism, incentive programs and recruiting.
HCP: Do you have any additional remarks you wish to make to those who read this article?
Beuttell: Anyone who has served, or will serve, on the fire commission serves as a volunteer and receives no pay and less benefits than any other volunteer in the Fire & Rescue services for their service to the departments, community and County. All of us who have served do so to be of service to the people and help the County.
The fire tax county residents pay is the best investment their tax dollars represent. Having a well-staffed and well-equipped local fire department saves more money in fire insurance premiums than you pay. Any time you see a fireman, rescue and other emergency personnel, thank them for their service. Last but not least, we need you the citizens to get involved with your local fire and rescue departments to continue to provide the quality of service you and your neighbors deserve. And thanks to all for their support.