Lake residents request Junaluska to provide fire service, not Waynesville

By Vicki Hyatt | Apr 17, 2017
Waynesville Fire Chief Joey Webb discussed the formation of five new fire districts at the April 17 board of county commissioners meeting.

A public hearing to create five additional fire districts to encompass areas already served by the Waynesville Fire Department took on a new twist Monday evening when a group of Lake Junaluska residents requested a change.

Tim Phelan was one of three Lake Junaluska residents who asked the Haywood County commissioners to instead expand the boundaries of the Junaluska Fire Department as opposed to creating a new district where Waynesville would continue its contract to provide fire protection.

Phelan presented the commissioners with a petition signed by 147 residents supporting a move to the Junaluska Fire Department.

He outlined the major reasons for the request — ones also mentioned by previous speakers Ken Zulla and Michael Jordan. They included:

• The Junaluska Fire Department is within .2 of a mile as opposed to the 5-mile distance from Waynesville;

• The Junaluska district completely surrounds most of the new district being proposed;

• Lake Junaluska residents will be able to vote for the governing board of the Junaluska district

• Many lake residents already assume they are covered by the Junaluska department.

There was limited discussion about the other four districts as the commissioners explained the move as one to ensure that all taxpayers within the county.

Waynesville Fire Chief Joey Webb opened the public hearing as he explained the boundaries of each of the proposed districts. He told the board the proposal was formalizing an arrangement of Waynesville providing fire coverage as they have for decades.

Some of the rural pockets currently pay nothing for fire protection, but there is  an $8 a month fire tax assessed on top of the water charge for Lake Junaluska residents who purchase their water from Waynesville. If the district is formed, the fire tax would be eliminated and residents would be charge the same rate as other households in the district — 6 cents for every $100 of property value.

On a $100,000 home, that would amount to $60 annually, or a decrease from the $96 currently paid, said Waynesville Town Manager Robert Hites in an interview after the meeting.

Lake Junaluska resident Ken Zulla, who also serves on the Lake Junaluska resident council, said residents had approached the Junaluska Fire Department to see if they were willing to accept the property in and around Lake Junaluska.

He told the board 70 percent of call outs in the lake area are for medical reasons and emphasized that seconds matter in that type of situation.

He said the Junaluska Fire Department has promised to increase staffing with the extra funds generated from the increased territory if a change is made. The current fire assessment at the Junaluska department is 7.5 cents per $100 of value, and Zulla said he would gladly pay an extra $15 a year for the possibility of a quicker response.

No simple change

County Commission Chairman Kirk Kirkpatrick said fire district boundaries tended to be quite political, and if proximity to the fire station was a consideration, many boundaries would need to change — something he stressed the commission wasn’t addressing under this proposal.

“A lot of this is about equality and making sure everybody is treated the same,” Kirkpatrick said. “There are people in districts receiving service but not paying the same as other people receiving the same service.”

Additionally, the commissioners would not be able to simply change the plan as requested, cautioned County Attorney Chip Killian. Fire districts are formed or expanded through a legal process that includes an advertised public hearing.

Should the district or department serving the Lake Junaluska area be altered, the legal process would have to begin anew.

Following the meeting, Charles Wood, deputy chief of the Junaluska Fire Department, said department officials have talked to Lake Junaluska residents about providing fire protection in past years, but didn’t aggressively pursue the option.

“They came and talked to us,” Wood said, adding department officials gave a presentation to the lake’s resident council recently. “We weren’t trying to sell our district, but told them if we had extra money we would look at our budget and the board would make the decision about adding more people.”

Currently, the Junaluska department has one person on duty from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. and 11 p.m. to 8 a.m. seven days a week. Employees can drive either the fire truck or first- responder vehicle to calls.

After the meeting, Webb said Waynesville has around-the-clock coverage with four fully trained firemen each shift who are also emergency medical technicians. During the day, the staff increases to six.

A year ago, Waynesville leaders increased taxes nearly 5 cents per $100 of value to hire and equip an additional eight firefighters. Part of the cost was to be recouped by including all people currently getting service but not paying proportionately into a fire district tax.

Both Webb and Hites said losing the Lake Junaluska contract would be a definite financial hit to the town, and Hites said the lake would have to continue paying the town for a year as the town dealt with obligations previously made to deliver service.

While Wood estimated the $215 million in property within the Lake Junaluska proposed district would generate about $150,000, Hites said that was high given that the religious owned facilities in the district aren’t subject to taxes.

Kirkpatrick said information provided about the Lake Junaluska district indicated there were 1,112 structures on 741 square miles.

Jack Ewing, executive director of Lake Junaluska Assembly answered a question during the public hearing process concerning the number of residents on the lake property, saying there were 750 homes on the lake occupied by 1,400 people, with about half of the residents living on site only part time.

The commissioners will vote on the issue at a later meeting.