Fire district tax rates are approved every year, but the process sometimes falls under the radar.
Sampson County officials and local Emergency Management personnel are seeking to modify current fire department contracts that might act to modify that, with commissioners seeking a public hearing process for each department.
Emergency Management director Ronald Bass said the goal is to come up with a harmonious arrangement between the county and its fire departments by which service can be extended to all county residents at a rate that is fair to all those involved — that could mean ultimately having the same rate across the board.
Fire district tax rates are presented to the Sampson County Board of Commissioners as part of the budget process each year, and take effect July 1.
Local departments are funded through those district tax proceeds — a rate set by the county board upon individual requests by each department. That request is based on the calculation of their operational costs, and the county levies a tax as payment for offering fire protection services. It is the decision of those departments as to how those operational funds are used.
“(The Board of Commissioners) levy the tax,” said finance officer David Clack. “We are following their recommendations based on what they think it would take to raise the money to pay the contract. We levy the tax basically to pay this contract every year.”
Currently, fire service district tax rates are set in Autryville at 9.5 cents; Clinton, 9.5 cents; Clement, 9 cents; Coharie, 8.5 cents; Franklin (Harrells), 7.5 cents; Godwin-Falcon, 10 cents; Garland, 10 cents; Halls, 7 cents; Herring, 8.5 cents; Honeycutt-Salemburg, 10 cents; Newton Grove, 6.5 cents; Piney Grove (Giddensville), 7.5 cents; Plain View at 9 cents; Spivey’s Corner, 10 cents; Taylors Bridge, 7 cents; Taylors Bridge Service 3.5 cents; Turkey, 6 cents; and Vann Crossroads, 10 cents.
Additionally, the departments receive an annual allocation of $6,900, dispensed in monthly increments, as well as any fire medic supplements if departments have such capabilities.
Commissioner Jarvis McLamb and others have asked that those fire department requesting increases in their tax rate notify the public. There were a handful that requested hikes for the current year. McLamb said it should be “mandatory.”
“They’re supposed to,” said Bass. “We can’t hold the tax money, but if we tie it back in with the fire commission resolution and the annual supplement they receive, (it can be modified).”
“I suggest you address anything you want like that within the contract,” Clack added. “How much we actually can put in there would have to be discussed with the county attorney.”
McLamb said it was about citizens having the chance to voice their input. The commissioners ultimately approve the fire district tax rates, but they often follow requests made from departments.
“Certain citizens want to know, and would like to be at the meetings,” he remarked.
The county could potentially modify the contract setting a timeline by which the county sets a date at which it needs requests, and fire department boards can hold a public hearing regarding the tax rate it plans to request from the commissioners. Those departments can solicit comments similar to the county board’s public hearing.
“It just so happens that usually (the county) public hearing occurs after June 15, which is the time when we have to set those tax rates for the districts,” Clack said.
The contract currently stipulates rules regarding publishing notices for annual meetings, but not for hearings on budget or fire tax rate requests. “There are 16 fire departments in the county and I think we probably have 16 different ways of having those public hearings,” Bass said. “We are in the process of trying to gather information from each one of these fire departments on how they handle these public hearings.”
Bass said the annual meeting and budgetary matters coincide at some departments, but maybe not at all. However, different from the county budget public hearing that always garners response, those annual meetings are not well-attended by the public, at least at Bass’ fire department, Plain View.
“We advertise it, and in the 28 years I’ve been involved, we’ve never had anyone from the public show up and ask any questions or make any suggestions,” said Bass.
Chairman Billy Lockamy said he agreed with McLamb about extending the chance to comment. The public may not show, but at least the opportunity has been given, he said.
Bass asked that the contract be reviewed and modified over the next year, with attention given to language concerning reports, records and hearings.
“I think we need to look at re-doing (the contract) with the help of the county attorney,” said Bass. “We can get something drafted up and take it before the Fire Commission. If they approve, we can take it to the chiefs and the Board of Directors. That way we have something the county is comfortable with and the Fire Commission is comfortable with.”
The commissioners unanimously agreed to direct staff and the county attorney to redraft the contract with fire departments to include the process for public hearings prior to their budget submission.
Bass pointed out fire service districts, those beyond the outlying areas of districts which are currently served, but not taxed. He proposed establishing rates for the service district, using Garland as an example.
“If they’re in a service district, they need to be paying the same thing that someone in the five-mile district or inside the city,” said Bass. “The argument is there is a big distance for that fire department to have to travel. I would like to see us consider maybe 4 cent (tax). The average tax rate in the county is 8 cents. Divide it by half, and I think 4 cents is certainly fair.”
Bass said the proposed fire service district in the county would bring another quarter of a billion dollars in projected tax value (personal property and real estate property, excluding vehicles). Taylors Bridge and Harrells currently have service districts, which were voted in by those towns, Bass noted. He said the Board of Commissioners could also establish such a district.
“Keep in mind, they’re getting the same service,” said Bass. “The only difference is the distance the fire department has to drive and they’re not getting a break on the insurance — but they’re also not paying fire tax.”
The move would mean more tax dollars for departments, while continuing to do what they always do.
“For every address in this county, there is a fire department that responds,” said Bass. “The fire departments will not be doing anything different.”
Ultimately doing away with separate fire district tax amounts, both dealing with distance within each district and the varying rates — from 6 in Turkey to 10 cents in several others — within the county, should also be examined, some commissioners said. Bass agreed.
“That may be something we need to consider down the road that makes it a bit more user-friendly for everybody, if we had one fire tax straight across the board in the county,” said Bass, “whatever number it might be.”
Chris Berendt can be reached at 910-592-8137 ext. 121 or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.