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Leaders: Figures show need for fire tax

A Burning Question

The Lake Wylie Pilot copntinues its four-part series investigating the proposed fire tax district set for vote May 2. Next week: How will area businesses be impacted?

LAKE WYLIE -- Officers with the Bethel Volunteer Fire Department believe the numbers tell the story when it comes to needing a new fire tax district.

"We've got good figures," said Chief Don Love. "We can justify everything we're saying we need."

On May 2, more than 12,000 voters living within Bethel limits will decide whether to create a special fire tax district. If the vote passes, home and business owners will pay an additional 4 to 10.5 percent tax for use by the department.

That cost, Love said, will go far toward protecting the 62-square mile district, and could even be offset by the protection it provides.

"The average person, it won't cost them any more money," he said. "They're probably going to put more money in their pocket."

Why the tax?

In 2008, the Bethel department operated on a $97,000 budget. That money is split with about half coming from York County through the Board of Rural Fire Control, and other other half coming through community donations. Yet for the past several years, donations flatlined while the number of buildings served by Bethel increased. And this year, the situation is even worse.

"Donations have been way, way down," said assistant chief David Long.

Fundraising efforts are not working, firefighters say, like the 9,200 mail-outs sent last year that brought back only 750 responses.

"It's not bringing in the money," Love said. "It's less money coming in every year."

When the price of gas jumped to more than $4 per gallon, the department spent as much as $1,300-$1,400 a month just on fuel. Plus they have payments for Station No. 3, which was finished in 2001, and a recently purchased 1988 model tanker truck. Those costs alone tap out donation and county money, firefighters say.

"We struggled with that," Long said of the 2008 budget.

Among the features of a tax district-funded budget are some paid positions, something that will increase area fire protection but would not be possible without the funds.

"If we don't get this, there's no way we'll be able to pay people to be here," Love said.

Where would the money go?

Last year, Love presented York County with a preliminary budget of $484,552 for the first year. Included in that budget are a used ladder truck ($250,000), salaries for four daytime positions at $12.50 an hour ($104,000), a new fire station ($50,000) and payments on Station No. 3 ($25,800) and the tanker ($17,796). Other costs, totaling $36,956 included social security, workman's compensation, bookkeeping, and new skid unit and a foam injector for the grass truck.

Since that submission last fall, additions of federal and state payroll taxes and millage for firemen were added to a draft budget totaling $541,552. All of that money should come from a 2.3-mill tax increase, separate from the existing county fire tax.

"This will be a separate tax all together," Love said. "100 percent of that money comes back to the fire department."

The four paid positions would be Bethel's first, likely operating 10-12 hours per day during the midday times when many volunteers work outside the community. As items like the tanker and fire station are paid off and removed from the budget, the department will be able to take on new projects like replacing Station No. 1, which was built in 1966 and has four additions since. Land for that project already belongs to Bethel.

That station would have sleeping facilities, and could help the department transition from an all-volunteer unit to having some paid members around the clock within five years.

"You've got to walk before you can run," Love said. "We're going to start with daytime help and hopefully work our way up to 24/7."

Community costs

Of the 9,200 structures served by the Bethel district, about 90 percent are owner-occupied homes, Love said. The 2.3 mills used at 4 percent would add a tax of $9.20 annually for a $100,000 home. A home twice that amount would pay twice that amount, and so on. Non owner-occupied homes and commercial buildings would pay 50 percent more at $13.80 annually per $100,000. The manufacturing rate of 10.5 percent would mean $24.15 per $100,000.

Yet Love reminds his community, particularly residents who make up the majority of the structures served, that a lowered Insurance Safety Organization rate just last year allowed many homeowners to save up to 11-15 percent on insurance rates. With the improved service created by a tax district, the ISO could be redone within 10 years to create savings far outweighing the cost of the tax, he said.

"That's money that goes right back into their pockets," Love said.

If the vote passes, three county council readings are required before the bill will show up on county tax statements. Love believes there is a "real good chance" it will be on the October tax notice if approved. The recent ISO estimates stated $2 million in improvements--including a reserve ladder truck and three more engines--would be needed to drop the rating an additional point.

How do the costs compare?

Of the 18 fire departments in York County, only Rock Hill is an all-paid unit while several others have some paid staff. Rock Hill, with five stations and headquarters, operates with almost twice the number of firefighters as Bethel. It's annual budget, said Chief Mike Blackmon, is just more than $7 million.

Flint Hill Chief David Jennings, who credits much of his department's capabilities to its fire tax district, serves an area of 21 square miles--about a third the area of Bethel. Flint Hill uses up to four paid personnel during the day, along with having five engine trucks, two service trucks, a ladder truck, two tankers and a grass truck. Bethel also has 11 trucks, though seven are county-owned.

As for new construction, Rock Hill has two more stations under construction now. One will cost $2 million and the other $2.8 million, Blackmon said. The Bethel budget lists only $75,800 for payments on one existing building and the addition of a new station combined.

For more information, call the fire department at 803-831-7988.

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