Fire tax district denied

Published 5:18 pm Sunday, June 30, 2013

WINTON – One local fire department saw its request denied for the establishment of a fire tax service district, but promises were made to study other alternatives for funding.

By a 5-0 vote here Wednesday night, the Hertford County Board of Commissioners shot down a request made by the Union Rural Fire Department, who asked for a four-cent tax (based on $100 of value). A portion of the Union fire district is already taxed, an area previously covered by the Ahoskie Rural Fire Department (who also has a four-cent tax rate). Ahoskie conceded that territory to Union. The Union firemen requested to expand the tax to the other property within their service district.

Prior to the vote, the commissioners conducted a public hearing that was properly advertised. Several citizens as well as the Union Fire Chief spoke during that hearing.

“I’m concerned about this fire tax,” said Jesse Holloman. “I need some explanation on this before I can give you my consent on this tax. Nobody wants another tax. Why are they (Union firemen) in a need to tax my property? Maybe these firemen should have spoken to those in the fire district before they got into a financial obligation.”

Chuck Revelle, legal counsel to the commissioners, explained how the issue got to this point.

“The Union Rural Fire Department is essentially requesting to expand and establish an existing tax district to cover the entire area that is served by that department,” he said. “At the current time only a portion of that district is taxed, previously part of the Ahoskie Rural Fire District. This new proposal is to cover the entire area. They’ve prepared a report and a notice has been published twice in the newspaper. Additionally, on May 23 the county mailed a notice of this public hearing to all property owners in the Union fire district.

It’s up to the commissioners to establish this district.”

Revelle clarified that those currently being taxed, who were once part of the Ahoskie Rural Fire District, would not be “double-taxed.”

“I assume Mr. Holloman is already being taxed,” Revelle said.

Union Rural Fire Chief Jim King explained the decision made by the department to seek a tax. He said the existing fire tax district is only 12-to-15 percent of the total district. That district has been in place for over 20 years.

“That’s why part of the district is now being taxed and others not taxed,” King explained, later adding that $29,000 would be generated if the entire Union district was taxed.

King said the department operates on an annual budget of approximately $65,000. In revenue for the current fiscal year, Union received $28,800 from the county, $1,000 in per call money, $7,557 from property owners in the portion of the district already taxed, $3,845 in donations, and $900 from Roanoke-Chowan Community College. The balance comes from several fundraisers the department conducts annually, but King noted the national and state economy has slowed to the point where those events do not generate money they once did.

“We’ve applied for grant funding from anyone and everyone,” King stressed. “We’ve drained our CD’s (Certificates of Deposit); we sold our brush truck last fall because we didn’t want to invest putting a new engine in it.”

King noted the high cost of operating a fire department, from providing insurance coverage on each member, to equipment, building payments, and the required annual tests performed on the trucks, air packs, etc.

“What we’re looking for is four cents (tax) on $100 worth of value,” King said. “If you live in a $120,000 house, that’s $48 a year. It’s less if you live in a house valued less.

“Without this tax, we may possibly go out of business,” he added. “Without fire coverage, (homeowners) insurance will generally go up between 230 and 300 percent or be canceled all together. Look at the increase in the insurance and look at the offset of four cents on $100 value and determine if you still want a fire department or not.”

King added that some may think that if the Union fire department closes, then Ahoskie Rural and St. John fire departments will respond.

“Each department in the county covers a specific area; they’re not obligated to come into Union, they may, they may not,” he said. “Which in effect means you have no fire department, possibly. What this all boils down to is do you want a fire department? If so, how much are you willing to pay?”

Meg Larabee said she supported the fire department, but was concerned if the four-cent tax rate is capped or can it be increased in the future. The maximum amount would be 10 cents, but that is not anticipated.

“It’s been four cents in Ahoskie since it started 20 years ago,” said Revelle. “The rate is based on a budget request made to the commissioners, who have the authority to increase it or decrease it.”

Larry Holloman agreed with Larabee in his support of the Union firemen. He asked what the other volunteer fire departments in Hertford County were doing to sustain themselves without having a fire tax.

“I can’t answer because I don’t have their individual budgets in front of me,” King said. “I can say that insurance is a major driver of our budget. I can also say that 70 to 80 percent of the people who show up for our fundraisers are from outside our district. If they didn’t support us, I don’t know where we’d be right now.”

“I would like our commissioners to take everything into consideration; as well as what other area volunteer fire departments are doing before you make a final decision,” urged Larry Holloman.

Commission Chairman Curtis Freeman said he wanted to verify an earlier statement by King regarding the department being forced to close without the tax.

“I’m not saying it will close tomorrow, but ultimately we can’t continue to make payments on what we have,” said King. “Our option from there would be to strip down all the equipment from one truck, put it on another of our trucks and sell the stripped down truck. We will maintain as long as we can because we enjoy providing this service to our community, but our costs keep going up.”

Commissioner Howard Hunter III said he spoke with a volunteer from another fire department in the county, saying they were also looking at a fire tax to help offset expenses.

“We have nine fire departments in the county, so when we make a decision we need to be consistent,” said Commissioner Ronald Gatling. “How can I say yes to you and not say yes to the eight that come behind you. Is it possible we can do this countywide? We have to look at this countywide or look at something else. I don’t know if the four-cent tax is the answer. I would love to help in some kind of way, but I’m not comfortable with making this move knowing what the other fire departments in the county make ask for and not knowing if the county may have to look at an (property tax) increase somewhere down the road.”

King said the Hertford County Firefighters Association (a body representing all fire departments in the county) was aware of what Union was doing in regards to requesting a tax district.

“We offered to them to do this (establish tax districts) all at one time and they said no,” King noted. “We told them that due to our financial situation we have to move forward with this.”

Freeman said that while they have not been made public, there are a few ideas on the table to help the fire departments over and beyond the county money currently benefitting those entities.

“I’m not in favor of this because it will cost me money; I’m just like any other taxpayer,” said local farmer Stuart Pierce. “These firemen do a great job, but the way the economy is right now we can’t afford a tax increase. Everybody is in a squeeze, including you because you don’t know what is or isn’t coming down the line from the state and federal government.”

Coming out of the public hearing, Hunter said it was clear what the Union firemen were up against.

“I think we can work together to come up with a solution,” he said. “I hate to do this, but I will make the motion to deny the request for the establishment of the Union Rural Fire Service District.”

Commissioner Bill Mitchell offered a second and the motion passed by a 5-0 vote.

“I will say to the Union firemen that this board has made a commitment over the past four to five years not to raise taxes,” said Commissioner Johnnie Ray Farmer. “I’ve been a commissioner for 12 years and we haven’t raised taxes over that time. Standing by that commitment, I would have to go along with my fellow commissioners not to raise taxes.”

“I believe we can work together to get the money Union needs,” Freeman said. “My whole concern is, and I know that the Union firemen have been working on this for a while, but this has only come to the attention of the citizens in the last 30 days. There hasn’t been enough time for us to work on alternative means to help the fire department. It hasn’t given the citizen enough time to weigh in on this issue, to voice their opinion.”

Freeman offered to meet with King to see what other alternatives are available.

“We’re talking about homes and lives and I take that seriously,” Freeman said. “We’re not going to sit by and allow the Union Fire Department to close its doors.”

“We can put our heads together and come up with some innovative way to find some funds without putting the burden on the citizens,” said Mitchell.

“We’re open to anything,” King concluded.

About Cal Bryant

Cal Bryant, a 40-year veteran of the newspaper industry, serves as the Editor at Roanoke-Chowan Publications, publishers of the Roanoke-Chowan News-Herald, Gates County Index, and Front Porch Living magazine.

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