One of the hottest issues to hit Lake Wylie in recent years is back, and answers this time could reach throughout York County.
York County Councilwoman Allison Love wants to form a new tax board for the Bethel Volunteer Fire Department. Tax boards give residents oversight on spending, and Love feels Lake Wylie deserves it.
“There’s no reason for Bethel to be any different than the other fire departments,” she said. “It’s in the best interest of the taxpayers in that tax district.”
While fellow council members agree it’s the right move, not all agree now is the time. There are operational questions that need answers facing volunteer or combination paid and volunteer departments.
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“We have the opportunity to use the Bethel board to help us learn,” said Councilman Chad Williams. “I certainly don’t think three years from now if everybody else has a board and Bethel doesn’t, that that’s fair.”
On Jan. 26, 2017, York County Council voted to disband the five-member Bethel Rural Fire District board leaving financial decisions for the special tax district to county administration. The move was made six days before William “Billy” Thompson was to become Bethel’s first paid fire chief.
Hiring a paid fire chief sparked many months of intense debate. The tax board wanted to professionalize the department and address rapid community growth starting with a paid chief. However, volunteers opposed that plan, supporting their longstanding election of chiefs from their ranks.
Council had decided in October 2016, it would not stop the hiring and the board was within it’s operational rights to do so.
However, less than three months later, Council voted to disband the board, calling it an “emergency.” According to an ordinance, the situation “escalated with threats (by volunteers) to call law enforcement should the new, paid chief respond to the scene of a fire, to refuse to respond to emergency calls, and to refuse to acknowledge the authority of the new chief.”
The county could not “risk the possibility of insufficient or inadequate fire coverage to the district,” the ordinance said.
Disbanding the board put the county manager and his office in charge of all tax funding decisions. A countywide fire service study was started to determine the best way to cover fires countywide. Results are expected soon.
“I didn’t think that this was a move to remove the Bethel tax board (members), just to replace them with another board at some point in the future,” Councilman Robert Winkler said. “There were issues in the Bethel fire department.”
Setting up a board for success is key.
“I do agree at some point, if we’re going to keep fire tax boards, we need to put one back in,” Winkler said. “But I would like to see us figure out what those boards look like, what the fire services looks like and that type of thing before we move forward.”
Bethel was one of seven departments in the county with a similar tax board. Only the Bethel board was disbanded.
In 2009, Lake Wylie voters supported the creation of a special tax district to fund fire services. The volunteer firefighters said the community was growing rapidly, but donations weren’t. The new tax district poured money into the department for equipment, training and a new $2 million fire station.
In 2016 problems emerged. The five-member citizen tax board, a tax district requirement, began planning for what it felt was the best way to handle rapid area growth, by hiring a chief and other spending decisions at odds with the volunteers. Volunteers argued the money, $120,000 in salary and for a vehicle, for a hired chief could be better spent elsewhere. They also wanted more say on spending.
Disbanding the fire board coincided with a change on Council. Love, vocally siding with the volunteers on the paid chief debate, replaced former Councilman Bruce Henderson, who had backed the board.
County Manager Bill Shanahan now makes decisions for Bethel that come to him for approval. A board making those decisions before needing his final approval, he said, wouldn’t be a problem.
“It’s not going to change how we’re moving forward with the study,” he said. “It’s not going to hurt anything.”
Concerns remain about setting up a new Bethel board, and what it means for other county fire boards.
“I haven’t been told yet that all those issues have been taken care of, that all that situation has corrected itself to a point of putting another one in,” Winkler said.
Still, some say, something needs to be done. Fire tax board seats countywide are sitting empty pending results of the countywide fire study. Some boards are down to three members, with each needing to be at a meeting just to conduct business. No new appointees have been named in nine months.
“We’ve got to start appointing somebody to some of these boards,” said Councilman Michael Johnson. “We have a backlog sitting in committee to be put on these boards, because we’ve been waiting for this to play out.”
An outstanding question is how many fire department members, employees or volunteers should be allowed on a tax board.
“We were having boards that were dominated by that group, which there is a question does that then give the firehouse chief a de facto control over the board because he controls the volunteers,” said Johnson, who chairs the committee that takes applications for most county boards, raises questions about conflicts. “The vast majority of the people that apply for these jobs, that I see at least, are either volunteers or they’re paid by firemen inside that department.
“Is it a conflict when five of the five tax board members are either volunteer or paid firefighters? Is there a number that we view it as a conflict?” he asked.
The Riverview department in the Fort Mill area at one point had four firefighters on a five-member board. Now there are three, none firefighters. The Newport station has two firefighter members with one up for reappointment, and two non-firefighters with an applicant who isn’t either.
Love would like to see no more than one firefighter on the board, but could allow for two.
A counter argument is firefighters on a fire tax board, like homebuilders on a planning commission or business executives on an economic board, provide much-needed expertise.
“It doesn’t make any sense for us not to allow the folks that have the expertise, who are in there dealing with it day in and day out, to have a voice,” said Councilwoman Christi Cox. “As long as it’s not a majority voice.”
County attorney Michael Kendree said as Council sets a policy, there is a difference between a volunteer and an employee. Legally, an employee on a tax board could be seen as a conflict of interest, but “not with the volunteers,” he said.
Chairman Britt Blackwell sees consensus to form a board again.
“I think it’s logical,” he said.
Establishing a new Bethel board would take three county readings and a public hearing.