Fire tax districts denied

Published 5:39 pm Tuesday, July 2, 2024

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JACKSON – A request to establish two new Fire Service Districts was denied by the Northampton County Board of Commissioners after a public hearing on the matter was held at a special called meeting on June 27.

Most municipalities throughout Northampton County have a Fire Service District, but Conway and Severn do not.

A Fire Service District imposes a tax on its citizens that would go to support the local fire department and its operations. Severn proposed a 5.5 cent tax per $100 of valuation and Conway proposed a 7 cent tax.

Volunteer Fire Departments in both towns began the process last year to establish the districts and each held a public hearing within their towns to receive input before gaining approval by their respective town leaders. Commissioner Board Chair Charles Tyner stated that he had attended Conway’s hearing.

The next step in the process was for the county commissioners to consider input from citizens at Thursday’s public hearing before they made the decision to approve or deny.

But many people who chose to speak at the hearing said they didn’t know anything about the fire tax district proposals until they received notice of the June 27 public hearing in the mail. Many had questions that perhaps could have been answered at the earlier public hearings held by Conway and Severn.

Donna Burgess, who wanted to know whether or not farm equipment would be exempt from the fire tax, was one of the few who had attended Conway’s public hearing. But she said it was not publicized enough ahead of time, and she never got answers on her question about the exemption.

“I’m going to request the fire department have another meeting, send letters to whoever’s affected in Conway, and open it back up for discussion,” Burgess stated.

“Somebody needs to do better as far as communication is concerned,” said Cassaundra Person from Pendleton. She and her husband Curtis both said they didn’t receive notices for the towns’ meetings.

“I do believe we pay enough taxes already,” added Curtis Person.

According to maps of the proposed districts, half of Pendleton would be included in Conway’s district and half in Severn’s.

Other citizens who spoke up said they didn’t have a chance to express their opinions or ask questions at the earlier meetings because they simply didn’t know about them ahead of time. Several citizens from Margarettsville said that the Seaboard Volunteer Fire Department has been serving them all these years, and they did not expect to be included in Severn’s proposed district.

Johnny Lassiter, from the Seaboard Volunteer Fire Department, said he was opposed to the proposed districts because “it leaves no room for us to expand our district.”

According to maps that had been provided to the citizens, the borders of Conway and Severn’s proposed Fire Service Districts go right up to the border of Seaboard’s district. Lassiter said when they set up their district, they had been told they could only extend a certain distance outside of the town limits.

Northampton County Tax Administrator Jaime Mason briefly spoke to remind citizens that many of the fire departments throughout the county work together when responding to calls, and that being in a certain Fire Service District did not mean that other departments couldn’t respond anymore.

“In Northampton County, we have top tier first responders,” Mason said. “This is not to harm the citizens. It is only to help.”

Representatives from both the Conway and Severn fire departments briefly spoke to explain that they followed the law to provide notice about the town hearings ahead of time. Those notices were posted in the newspaper and at their town halls.

No other representatives from those fire departments opted to speak during Thursday’s public hearing.

“The reason they need the funds is because it’s a volunteer fire department,” explained Tyner. “They’re asking for some money to help them with equipment and personnel they need in order to fight the fires.”

Once the public hearing was closed, the commissioners also expressed concern about the notification methods for the earlier hearings.

“I never would have associated Severn with Margarettsville,” Commissioner Geneva Faulkner pointed out. “I can see how many citizens were not aware about the method that was used.”

“Safety is paramount, and I applaud all first responders,” said Commissioner Kelvin Edwards, but he also stressed that information not being shared in a timely manner was a big issue.

Tyner asked if the commissioners would be able to table the decision for another month or two to allow the citizens to have another opportunity for discussion with the towns.

County Manager Julian Phillips answered that, according to state statutes, if the districts aren’t approved before the end of the fiscal year to take effect on July 1, 2024, then they must wait until the next fiscal year (beginning July 1, 2025) to include them.

Edwards motioned to deny the request for the Fire Service Districts for Conway and Severn, and Commissioner Melvetta Broadnax Taylor seconded. The vote was unanimously in favor.

As previously reported by the News Herald, members of Conway’s Volunteer Fire Department went before the county commissioners in Oct. 2023 to explain why they were starting the process to create a Fire Service District. At that meeting, they noted the skyrocketing costs for trucks and other equipment, and they could no longer rely solely on “barbecue dinners and auctions” fundraisers despite how supportive and generous the community has been.