WAXHAW – Union County is asking town and village leaders for input on long-term funding for its 17 fire service districts.
Five districts are funded through a local tax established by the county. They are Hemby Bridge, Springs, Stallings, Waxhaw and Wesley Chapel. The others are funded through a local fee, which the state caps at $100.
“As that cap has not raised enough money in some of our fee districts, we’ve had to subsidize through that countywide fire tax to make sure they have the money they need to operate,” said Michael James, assistant to the county manager. “That’s where most of the countywide fire tax goes to.”
James told Waxhaw commissioners Jan. 8 that the county seeks a more sustainable option to replace the fire fee model, one that can adapt to a growing population and meet future demands. James expects county commissioners to revisit the issue as early as March.
The county’s budget for fire protection was nearly $13.8 million, an increase of 50 percent from 2009.
James acknowledged fire departments are struggling to recruit volunteers and the cost of providing service has increased since 2010 as equipment and personnel costs grow. Eighty percent of calls for service that volunteer fire departments receive are non-fire related, such as roadway accidents and medical issues.
The county is considering a few funding options, including self-funded tax districts, countywide taxes, a self-funding district with county subsidy and legislation to increase the cap for fire fees.
A self-funding district removes redistribution of revenue and reflects density, development and tax value, according to James.
“When you look countywide, you have very different districts when you look west to east,” he said, noting the taxable value ranges from $126 million to $5 billion (Wesley Chapel).
If there is a countywide tax, Monroe and Weddington would be reimbursed since they have town departments.
The county surveyed fire chiefs on which funding model suited their needs. Thirteen of the 15 surveyed preferred a form of fire tax.
“None of the fire departments thought continuing the fee model made sense to them,” he said. “They wanted to move to some form of a taxing model.”
Chiefs in Bakers, Hemby Bridge, Jackson, Springs, Stallings and Wesley Chapel favored a self-funding fire tax district, while Lanes Creek, New Salem, Sandy Ridge, Stack Road and Waxhaw preferred a self-funding model with a county subsidy.