Conway VFD takes steps towards implementing fire tax district

Published 4:35 pm Friday, October 6, 2023

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JACKSON – After decades of getting by on fundraisers, donations, and other community support, members of Conway’s Volunteer Fire Department say that rising costs these days make it difficult to continue.

They have recently started the process of creating a fire district tax in order to address funding shortfalls.

Johnny Martin and Joe Barrett represented the department as they spoke to the Northampton County Board of Commissioners during their work session meeting on Oct. 2.

“We’re in an era we’ve never seen before,” explained Martin, citing high costs for equipment and other expenses.

Barrett gave examples of skyrocketing costs for truck purchases over the years. A 1953 pumper, for example, cost $7,000 to purchase. By 1976, that price had increased to $70,000.

The department has a 1996 pumper/tanker that cost $166,000 when it was purchased, and a 1999 pumper/tanker that was $193,000. These are the two oldest trucks that are currently in service, and Barrett said they needed to be replaced.

Conway’s most recently purchased truck, a 2017 pumper/tanker, had a price tag of $263,000. Barrett explained that the same kind of truck would be $605,000 if purchased today. He also stated that the department needed a basic medium rescue truck that costs $850,000.

“There’s no way you can keep up with barbecue dinners and auctions,” he said, adding even with how supportive and generous the community has been over the years.

Martin said they worked with the county tax department to come up with the numbers, and determined that there is currently over $220 million worth of taxable property in the Conway fire district, which extends into the rural area surrounding the town. Bakelite (formerly Georgia Pacific) makes up about $20 million of that total.

With those figures, they determined that a seven cent tax would be needed to cover the estimated annual expense of $156,000 (which includes the fixed operating cost along with a plan to purchase a $750,000 truck every 10 years). According to information provided to the commissioners, that tax would be approximately $35 for a property owner with a $50,000 property value.

Barrett pointed out that the Conway district currently has an ISO rating of 5. That rating affects homeowner’s property insurance, with lower numbers being the better rating. But without being able to sustain the costs for equipment and state-mandated training, Barrett worried they wouldn’t be able to maintain their ISO rating.

“We’re likely to lose that fire rating and that’s going to cost homeowners even more money than they’re spending now. We’re hoping this will justify the need,” he stated.

Conway is one of the last districts in Northampton County that does not already have a fire tax.

Martin noted that they proposed the idea first to the town’s board, and it was unanimously approved at their meeting on Sept. 5.

Commissioner Geneva Faulkner asked about the timing of the request, and Martin explained that the tax would go into effect during the next fiscal year (beginning July 2024) but they wanted to get started earlier to make sure they’re able to meet all deadlines throughout the process.

Because the Oct. 2 meeting was a non-voting work session, the commissioners took no action after the presentation and are expected to consider it at their next regular meeting.

Board Chair Charles Tyner thanked the fire department representatives for the information, and added that they want to do everything they can to keep the county’s citizens safe.