Wednesday, May 22, 2013
Help for Berkeley County’s struggling rural fire department has hit a dead end.
Berkeley County Council Justice and Public Safety Committee Chairman Ken Gunn tabled an ordinance for a proposed fee increase on undeveloped land in rural Berkeley County indefinitely during last week’s council meeting in Moncks Corner.
The money would go to a pooled fire fee fund to be used for an independent study of the county’s rural fire departments.
The resolution narrowly avoided being struck down altogether when council member Steve Davis presented a motion to deny the proposal during the committee meeting. The motion failed on a 3-3 vote among committee members with Gunn passing the tiebreaking vote to keep the resolution alive.
Voting with Davis were council members Jack Schurlknight and Caldwell Pinckney. These three council members represent much of rural Berkeley County.
“Undeveloped land resides mostly in the rural portions of Berkeley County and once again we are adding a tax burden onto the shoulders of those that can least afford it,” Davis said.
Gunn said he tabled the ordinance so his committee could further study the situation and discover the best plan of action.
“We’re trying to work something out that can work for everybody,” Gunn said during the meeting. “We’re proposing to raise the tax on undeveloped land so as to generate funds for an independent study.”
Unimproved land was targeted because the departments respond to more brush fires than any other types, though Gunn stressed brush fire calls are not the only reason for taxing rural landowners.
The Justice and Public Safety Committee originally approved a proposal that would increase fees on vacant lots and property from its present $2 to $25 per year. The fee for houses would remain at $70 per year. “We’re not throwing a new tax at rural landowners,” Gunn said. “We are looking to increase the fee they are currently paying.”
The new rate would bring in an extra $160,000, which would be earmarked for a study on countywide fire protection.
Chiefs from the rural fire departments initially asked council to approve a flat $40 increase per household for fire protection but the proposal was modified to its present wording.
The problems facing the county’s rural fire departments are many, including inadequate funding to counter rising debt, plus outdated and subpar equipment. The rural fire department chiefs were not receptive to the idea of an independent study.
“I attended a fire chiefs meeting last week and they weren’t for it at all,” Gunn said.
Councilman Davis’ concern is the rising debt with all the rural fire departments, debt that has skyrocketed from $7.1 million in 2007 to $9.8 million now.
“I don’t see how we can keep adding, and adding and adding and not having a mechanism in place to handle this increasing debt,” he said.
Gunn moved to table the debt for further study but first had to overcome the denial motion.
“I proposed tabling the ordinance so we can have a couple more weeks to study it and maybe find a more equitable means of generating funds,” he said. “I’m willing to talk and meet with anybody to find an equitable direction to go.”
Councilman Caldwell Pinckney agreed with the need for an outside study during April’s county council meeting when the issue was last discussed.
“I don’t think currently that we are getting the kind of protection that we should because of the lack of equipment and some other things as well,” he said. “I’m hoping that an outside, independent study would cause this to happen.”
“I’m all for helping the rural fire departments out, but we need to find a funding mechanism to support the audit,” said Councilman Jack Schurlknight. “I’m sure that most of the fire departments are being as efficient as they can, but there may be situations where we could be more efficient. We can’t continue throwing good money after bad.”
With rural chiefs not receptive to an independent study and with no clear direction in sight to manage their budget problems other than a direct tax increase on residents, the fees resolution is on hold awaiting further study.
The fee was to be assessed on land within the county’s Special Fire Tax District, which was created in 1987 to help the 26 rural fire departments collect fees. An ordinance did pass second reading calling for the increase in the number of members of the Special Fire Tax District Advisory Commission, from five to eight. These committee members will reside in the rural fire districts and not in municipalities, Gunn said.
“I’m not trying to tell anybody what to do,” Gunn said. “I’m trying to put a committee together that would provide a direction we need to go, get a little more organized, and then we’ll take a look at a tax increase.”