School board anticipates 75 jobs to be lost
by Alan Hodge
If Union County commissioners have their way, local fire fees won’t be eliminated in 2012 as currently planned.
By a 3-2 vote, with commissioners Tracey Kuehler and Kim Rogers dissenting, the board passed a resolution Tuesday, Jan. 4, asking state lawmakers to repeal the so-called “sunset clause” on fire fees. To get the maximum allowed fire fees doubled, Union County agreed last spring to end the practice of using fire fees to help fund local departments by 2012. Faced now with decisions on how to keep the departments operating, the new commission majority said it was too early to take something off the table.
“We need to have every option in our arsenal,” Commissioner Todd Johnson said. “This (just) gives us the option. We don’t need to be held to one specific method of funding.”
To eliminate funding shortages at local fire departments, Union County needs to change the current financing mechanism for all departments. That would mean eliminating inadequate fire fees that result in the county having to bail out departments that don’t receive enough money to pay their bills. Bailouts cost the county fund $700,000 in the 2009-10 fiscal year.
Funding shortages have long been an issue for Union County fire departments. The five departments currently using a fire tax expect to break even this year. Each department sets its own tax rate per $100 of assessed property and charges households accordingly.
The other 13 departments charge a $100 annual fire fee per household and frequently have to ask the county to plug the funding gap from its general fund.
“I think people work harder with a deadline,” Rogers said. “(This debate) has gone on for years (with) no action taken.”
As it stands, the county would have two options to choose from if commissioners agree to implement a fire tax for everyone. The first option would allow each department to set its own tax rate, which is done at the five departments that currently tax – Hemby Bridge, Mineral Springs, Stallings, Waxhaw and Wesley Chapel. To use that option, each department must submit a report to the state demonstrating its financial need for a fire tax.
The second option would establish a countywide fire tax rate. The county voters would have to approve the countywide fire tax in a referendum. If voters approve, county commissioners would set the tax rate each year.
As it stands currently, residents could pay twice for fire services, first through their respective fire tax or fire fee, then again as the county subsidizes the department from the general fund’s tax revenue.
“What we’ve got isn’t working,” Kuehler, who formerly served on the county’s fire commission, said. “I don’t think the fees are an option anymore.”
The Union County state delegation must support a repeal of the sunset clause. Former Union County Rep. Curtis Blackwood, an opponent of fire fees, fought while in office to maintain the sunset clause, but his successor, Craig Horn, said he would like to see a plan in place before making a decision.
“What is unclear to me is what funding strategy does the Board of County Commissioners recommend for our fire service in Union County,” Horn, who also has served on the fire commission, said. “Clearly the present system is inadequate. Most of the fire departments’ (funding) are clearly inadequate, thus requiring substantial subsidy from county tax revenues.”
The problem, Horn said, is the fire fees are charged at the same rate to a widow in a single-wide trailer as to a family living in a mansion.
“That certainly seems inequitable and regressive,” Horn said. “Of all the public services, it is emergency services that are the most important obligation of a government.”