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Fire tax vote Saturday

A Burning Question

This is the fourth of a four-part series running in the Lake Wylie Pilot investigating the proposed fire tax district set for vote Saturday. Look for the vote result online at lakewyliepilot.com and in next week's Pilot.

LAKE WYLIE -- Of the telephone book-sized list of numbers impacting Saturday's Bethel fire tax district vote, the most important might be the number. 2. Not Station No. 2 or the $2 million needed to better Bethel's fire rating, but two years.

"In two years, the fire department will be broke," said Assistant Chief David Long.

Bethel volunteers mix no words on the outlook of their department. An annual budget less than $100,000 is half-funded through community donations. Donations last year brought no more money than the past half dozen years despite significantly more buildings in the area during that time. This year, firefighters say, donations are even fewer.

So while Bethel hopes for the benefits of a new tax district -- a bigger budget, building replacement, paid help during day time hours -- firefighters also recognize what would happen if the vote fails.

"You hate to put a dollar amount on someone's safety," said plan supporter and County Councilman Tom Smith, "but that's exactly what we're doing."

Response time

If Bethel only has two years before the department faces financial uncertainty, Saturday's vote will dramatically change area fire protection regardless of the decision.

A yes vote would add the first paid personnel during hours when most volunteers work, upgrades to existing buildings and, in time, more and newer apparatus.

A no vote, on the other hand, would mean no changes to the existing financial structure, which currently provides about one-fifth the funding a tax district would, likely beyond that two-year mark.

"The process has been fairly long," said Wanda Hemphill, director of the York County Registration and Elections Office.

Even with a yes vote, money would not pour in immediately. The decision would require three readings from County Council, which meets twice monthly. A tax board would then be established with five members, three nominated by Council and two by Bethel, to decide which projects should receive the tax money. Then the tax could be assessed, as early as October, said Chief Don Love, and Bethel would have to submit budget requests.

"We possibly could see money by February 2010," Love said.

With a no vote, the possibility of fire tax money would take longer. Because fire tax votes occur so infrequently, Hemphill is not sure whether county code gives a time Bethel must wait before trying again. Votes like the recent Sunday alcohol sales decision, she said, carry waiting periods up to 48 months following a failed vote before attempting the process again (Sunday sales passed in November).

"Conceivably, I could see the process taking another six to nine months, at least," Hemphill said of the possibility of a failed vote. "If it fails you go back to the drawing board and start from scratch."

Answering the call

Becky Gardner could hear all the numbers in the world, but the fact that her one business still stands is all the persuasion she needs. Gardner, manager at Bethel Cleaners, operates from Bethel Commons where a March 9 fire at Ultratan -- two stores away -- shut down business for a day. Then, businesses reopened.

"They did a great job," Gardner said. "They were here quick, and being volunteer, that's awesome that they would take the time out of their day to keep us from burning to pieces."

Best China waiter Prast Putro, also in Bethel Commons, praised the Bethel response as "perfect." Love points to the Ultratan fire as a great example of what a new fire tax district could mean. Because most volunteers happened to be attending a nearby funeral when Ultratan caught fire, the response time of a few minutes was almost as fast as if paid personnel assisted Bethel during the day.

Without help, and with volunteers not nearby, response time could be three to five minutes longer.

"If that three to five minutes had of been there, that building would have been on the ground," Love said.

Smith, a business owner himself, understands the current economy puts strains on locals and the idea of a new tax might not sit well. But with donations down, he said, incidents like the one at Bethel Commons should serve as a reminder.

"We need this tax now more than ever," he said. "You get what you pay for."

Long hopes more residents feel the same way as the department continues to answer any questions on the tax use through Saturday.

"We're not wanting to hide anything," he said. "The community needs to know this is for their betterment, their protection."

Time to decide

The Bethel Volunteer Fire Department special tax district vote will be held from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Saturday at the same voting locations used for general elections. Only voters within Bethel limits will be allowed to vote. For more information, call York County Registration and Elections at 803-684-1242 or the fire department at 803-831-7988.

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