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Tax structure could prove taxing issue for fire plan

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: The impact of the May 2 decision.

LAKE WYLIE -- With the proposed Bethel fire-tax district decision looming May 2, firefighters know what could hurt the vote, which community members are most likely to ignite resistance and why.

"Probably the state of the economy," said Bethel Assistant Chief David Long.

Along with the recession, local leaders say the current tax structure could lead businesses to vote against the proposed fire tax district down.

"I don't think anybody's against it," said Lake Wylie Chamber of Commerce president Susan Bromfield of Bethel Volunteer Fire Department's plan. "I think if there's any concern, it might be with the businesses or people who own commercial property."

York County Councilman Tom Smith and co-owner of May Green Properties agreed saying the existing tax structure unfairly burdens business, particularly small business. Still, he hopes his community can separate the need for tax change from whether the area needs the fire tax district.

"Our tax structure needs an overhaul," Smith said. "Small business takes on the brunt of it. It's a broken system. It's like a leaking dike.

"It may be cheap for you to live, but it's not cheap if you have a business," Smith said.

What's the issue?

When Act 388 passed in South Carolina three years ago, owner-occupied homes received a break from property taxes for school funding in favor of a higher sales tax. But commercial and industrial properties received no break. State Rep. Herb Kirsh, a sponsor of Act 388, said in the fall that legislators need to "tweak it" to help businesses that are paying more than their fair share in taxes.

"I've got business owners telling me they're paying $50,000 in taxes or more," Kirsh said then.

In Lake Wylie, one major operation could see the proposed fire tax cost it much more. Catawba Nuclear Station, a 2,258 megawatt facility that cost $3.6 billion to build north of Big Allison Creek.

"We are the largest taxpayer in the county," said company spokeswoman Mary Kathryn Green. "Last year, we paid $35 million in taxes."

"We believe any tax should be about fair apportionment," she said. "We're not opposed to paying our fair share. We're just looking to see what's fair."

In rural fire tax money last year -- taxes paid to the county that are then distributed among 16 county volunteer units -- Duke paid $585,000. That figure is more than $100,000 above the budget amount Bethel requested in asking for the fire district and more than five times the Bethel budget without the tax district.

"One of the things that is unique about this taxing district is really the lion's share of the revenue generated would actually be coming from the nuclear plant itself," said County Manager Jim Baker at a January council meeting following discussion about the tax.

However, Green said, leadership at the plant is not encouraging its work force -- 1,200 full-time employees and more than 400 contract workers with sometimes 2,000 refueling workers, many of whom live within the district -- to vote one way or the other.

"Anytime you can upgrade your fire service, that's going to help," said Green, explaining the nuclear station does have its own on-site fire brigade, but also includes Bethel in its disaster response plan. "At the end of the day, we want to ensure the Bethel fire district has adequate protection, and we support them."

While Smith hopes for a "comprehensive tax study" to relieve the strain on business, Love notes the tax district could help lower costs for businesses. Last year, Bethel lowered its Insurance Safety Organization rating two points, saving homeowners 10 to 15 percent in insurance costs. If Bethel can drop its ISO one more point, which Love says is a possibility within eight to 10 years, the biggest insurance savings will come to the business community.

"As a business owner, you want to know that you're investment is protected," Smith said.

By the numbers

What homeowners and businesses would pay if the proposed fire tax district passes May 2:

• In York County, the owner-occupied residential tax rate is 4 percent, meaning a 2.3 mill increase from the tax would cost a $100,000 home an additional $9.20 each year.

• The rate for unoccupied homes and commercial businesses is 6 percent. A $100,000 business would be charged an additional $13.80 each year.

• The rate for manufacturing more than doubles the residential figure at 10.5 percent. A $100,000 manufacturing business would be charged an extra $24.15 each year.

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