Bethel firefighters petition for creation of tax district

LAKE WYLIE -- The volunteers protecting Lake Wylie from the threat of fire could use some help.

Don Love, chief of the Bethel Fire Department, asked the York County Council last week to grant his unit a special tax district to help with the rising cost of protection. The tax would be used to hire help during daytime hours, although equipment, buildings and fuel also are among department needs, he said.

If approved, the seventh special tax district in York County would apply to residents and businesses within the 62-square-mile Bethel community between Clover and Lake Wylie. It would operate much like a tax for schools, with a special county board working with the department to decide which items are funded.

York County staff is reviewing the need and potential costs for the district, said County Manager Jim Baker.

"The council needs context on whether this is a viable thing to put to the voters," Baker said. "It may be something the whole county is looking at in the future. There's going to come a time where we'll need full-time, daytime fire protection throughout the county."

Because many volunteers work outside of the community, Love said they'll eventually need paid firefighters to supplement volunteer service during the day.

The Bethel Fire Department runs on public donations and some county funding through the York County Board of Rural Fire Control. For the past five years, Love said, donations to the department have flatlined despite an increase in buildings within the Bethel coverage area.

Tom Smith, who represents Lake Wylie on the County Council, said part of the problem with public support is that the community -- particularly newer residents and businesses -- doesn't know Bethel is a volunteer, community-supported station.

Smith said he supports the special tax, "the sooner, the better."

Department needs

Unless a special tax district is implemented, the department will be forced to pick and choose which projects are funded from year to year, Love said.

Some areas within the Bethel district still require water to be hauled in by trucks. Only one of the two department tankers is operational, and the fire house on S.C. 557 has been added on to four times since it opened in 1966.

"The trucks have outgrown the building," Love said.

Love would like to purchase backup power generators but first must focus on basic equipment to keep his firefighters prepared and safe.

The department also runs into staffing problems as calls increase. About 40 firefighters responded to 301 calls for service in 2007, not counting false alarms. That number is up from 278 calls in 2006.

"So far this year, I've had two weekends off where I wasn't doing something with the department," said volunteer Albert Krashner.

Insurance savings

David Jennings heads 16 of the 18 York County departments that are members of the rural fire board. He also is the chief of the Flint Hill department, which in 1984 became the first in York County to receive a special tax district.

"We wanted to stay ahead of the growth curve," Jennings said. "We needed it with all the growth we've had, and it's helped us do pretty much everything we've wanted to."

At Flint Hill, the money has gone to adding four part-time firefighters to man the station during the business week when most firefighters are working other jobs. It also helped Flint Hill achieve the lowest Insurance Service Office rating among volunteer departments in the county. The ratings, Jennings explains, are directly proportional to the amount of resources a department has and are used to determine the amount residents and businesses pay for fire insurance.

On a 1-10 scale, with 10 being no protection, the difference between a rating of 9 and 7 can mean a noticeable drop in insurance rates.

The county's ISO rating lists Bethel at 7, tied with Riverview for the second highest rating among volunteer departments behind only Bullock Creek, which has a 9.

Allstate insurance agent Mike Short recently ran numbers on actual Lake Wylie area policies and found a 2 percent to 4 percent overall rate reduction if the rating improves to a 6. If it were a 5, rates would be 15 percent to 18 percent lower and the difference between 7 and 4 in Lake Wylie is 16 percent to 20 percent.

Additionally, statistics show that every dollar spent in a special tax district can save $10 to $20 or more in fire insurance for residents and businesses, Jennings said.

"It's the only situation where you can pay a tax and you'll make more money than what you pay," he said.

Continued protection

While many calls to the Bethel department are fire alarms or false alarms with little incident, serious fires have claimed several homes over the past two years.

In August, a Bethelfields home was lost with no cause determined. In April 2006, one Autumn Cove home was damaged and another destroyed after an electrical fire spread. In December 2006, a River Hills home was lost.

In each of those incidents, Bethel responded within about 10 minutes.

In Flint Hill, the addition of daytime paid personnel has lowered response times, Jennings said.

"You usually get there before things get out of control," he said. "You cut out that four or five minutes it takes for a volunteer to respond from home."