Controversial fees may stick around with Union delegation’s support
Union County’s legislative delegation has filed bills in the N.C. House and Senate to remove the deadline for the county to eliminate all fire services fees.
N.C. Rep. Craig Horn, with Justin Burr as co-sponsor, filed House Bill 97, which would repeal the July 1, 2012, deadline currently attached to all fire departments fees. Earlier this month, N.C. Sen. Tommy Tucker filed Senate Bill 19, which would have the same effect.
Looking for a way of plugging a funding gap last year, county commissioners asked the state for the ability to increase fire fees that departments are allowed to charge. To get support for a local bill, however, all of a county’s delegation has to support it.
Then Rep. Curtis Blackwood refused unless county commissioners agreed to a clause setting the deadline to end the fees. Blackwood has long opposed the fees and wanted the county to move toward a fire tax system.
In January, county commissioners passed a resolution asking the state to remove the fee deadline, to give them more than a year to find solutions for supporting local fire departments.
“We wanted as much time as we could to look at this,” county commissioner Jonathan Thomas, recently appointed as board liaison to the county’s Fire Commission, said. “This isn’t an easy problem, and the solution won’t be quick.”
The problem is complex because one method likely won’t work for the entire county, Thomas said. The eastern part of the county is more rural and has fewer homes. But the population is much denser in the western part, requiring more firefighters and more money to pay for stations and equipment.
“This may be the one issue where there is a difference between the eastern and western part of the county,” Thomas said. “The demands are much different.”
The question remains, however, if keeping fire fees on the table will help eliminate funding shortages at local fire departments, Each year, the county has to bail out departments that don’t receive enough money through the fee system. 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. All five departments using a fire tax – Hemby Bridge, Mineral Springs, Stallings, Waxhaw and Wesley Chapel – expect to break even this year, but not by much. Each department sets its own tax rate per $100 of assessed value 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 any shortfalls.
Even former opponents of the fire fee system, such as Horn, said that removing the clause was the best move right now, giving commissioners more time to work on a solution.
“Events have again overtaken a timely response by the Board of County Commissioners,” Horn said, citing issues such as the hospital negotiations and the new budget year, where Union County already faces a projected $13.9 million shortfall.
In January, Horn said he opposed the fire fees because a widow in a single-wide trailer pays the same fee as a family living in a mansion. Based on promises from the commissioners that they would find a solution, Horn said, he’s willing to repeal the deadline.
“Based on assurances publicly made by Chairman (Jerry) Simpson and new Fire Commissioner Thomas, I will work with all the elected members of our state delegation to give the commissioners sufficient time to deal directly with this issue,” Horn, a former member of the Fire Commission, said. “We cannot continue to kick the can down the road for yet another set of commissioners to address.”
Horn’s bill also has the support of Union’s third N.C. House member, Pryor Gibson.
“I do support the intent” of the commissioners’ resolution, Gibson said. “(I) don’t know what the final words will be (on the bill), but I support most everything the volunteer fire departments ask for. They save millions in business (and) homeowner insurance.”
Tucker’s bill in the Senate already passed its first reading and was referred to the Senate Committee on Finance. As of Feb. 17, Horn’s bill had not yet been brought to the House floor for a vote.
County commissioners meanwhile plan to reconstitute the Fire Commission, Thomas said, hoping to get their input on everything from the fire study to what to do about the fees. Thomas also plans to give copies of the county’s fire study to each department chief, six months after the first results were released. Multiple departments said they never got an official copy from the county, even though it called for some stations, such as Wesley Chapel and Providence, to merge.
County commissioners are expected to discuss the new Fire Commission at their meeting Monday, Feb. 21.