Enquirer Herald

Wanted in western York Co.: land for fire substations

Hickory Grove residents living more than five miles from the town’s only fire station will soon have a second station from which to measure their steps – and lower their home insurance premiums.

The fire substation near the intersection of Hopewell and Scenic View roads south of Hickory Grove is nearly complete, said Kenny Gilfillan, chief of the western York County volunteer fire department.

The station, costing about $200,000, will be good news for property owners who find themselves within five miles of the station instead farther away , where insurance premiums tend to double, Gilfillan said.

“I knew sooner or later I was going to have to build a substation,” Gilfillan said. “It got to the point where people's homeowner's insurance was more than doubling.”

York County leaders had planned to build new substations in the county’s rural areas to help lower insurance rates and provide faster response times to those in need. But they have shifted their priorities to building a new fire training center which the county’s rural fire board says is sorely needed.

The new center would provide a larger shop for truck repairs, better maintenance tools, and a larger office and training space for the county’s 600 paid and volunteer firefighters.

The county recently reviewed sites for a new training center. To pay for it, the county is considering using $3.1 million initially set aside for building rural substations. That plan is widely endorsed by the county’s Rural Fire Control Board, which oversees the county’s 16 fire departments.

The plan still needs a public hearing and a final vote before taking effect. The public hearing is tentatively scheduled for Oct. 15. If the plan passes the county council will still have to approve a site and plans for the new training center.

As county council, the fire board and fire chiefs push toward that goal, fire chiefs in the county’s rural western areas are taking a do-It-yourself approach to meeting the need for more rural fire substations.

While Hickory Grove is well on its way to meeting its goals, Sharon, Smyrna, Bullocks Creek and Bethany-Santiago volunteer fire departments are looking for ways to expand their rural fire service.

“We found some land that we’re checking on. That is as far as we’ve gotten so far,” said Smyrna’s fire chief Rickey Wilson, who is also the senior fire prevention technician for York County.

Oliver Dowdle of Sharon and Tim Gordon of Bethany-Santiago, which stretches from the state line to the York Fire Department’s service area in northwestern York County, haven’t had luck finding land yet.

“We really haven’t gotten a whole lot of anywhere right now,” Dowdle said. “I haven’t talked to the right person, I guess.”

Chiefs are looking for affordable – or better – donated land, like what Hickory Grove is building its new station on. Ideal areas for new substations, chiefs said, are:

• Sharon the area near Sandifer Road and U.S. 321.

• Bethany-Santiago, near Moton Road and S.C. 161.

• Smyrna, near Beersheba Road and Matlock Drive

• Bullocks Creek, Burris Road and S.C. 322.

Mulling tax districts

Finding land is the first challenge – paying for the substation is the next, chiefs said.

Asking people who already donate to support the fire departments to pitch in a little more – whether through additional fundraising events or special tax districts – may be what it takes.

The tax districts would overlay the existing boundaries of the fire districts, said Anna Moore, assistant county manager.

Fire departments in more rapidly growing parts of the county have already implemented special tax districts, which generate revenue for the departments to expand.

Tax rates and how much revenue each department generates vary from district to district.

Bethel’s volunteer fire department is scheduled to collect $552,959 in taxes for the 2012 fiscal year and that’s with a $100,000 owner-occupied home generating $8.40 in taxes. By contrast, Oakdale fire department will collect $65,446 with a higher tax rate that generates a $20 tax bill on a house of the same value.

Wilson said estimates done a few years ago show that a tax district in Smyrna may only need to generate about $10,000 annually to help pay off a fire substation, which may cost about $100,000.

Based on an analysis of current property values in western fire districts provided by York County Finance Department, property owners in Smyrna and Bullocks Creek would likely pay higher tax rates than in the other districts to raise the same amount of revenue for their fire districts.

If each tax district wanted to raise $20,000, a $100,000 owner-occupied home would generate a $40.80 tax bill in a Smyrna tax district and $37.20 in Bullocks Creek, but only $10.40 in the Bethany fire district, according to the analysis.

For now, Wilson said he will use money from fundraising to get a substation underway, and wait to see if a tax district is necessary in the future.

Some chiefs, including Dowdle, don’t want to set up new tax districts unless absolutely necessary.

“We would do better with fundraisers,” he said. “I’m not real keen on taxing people.”

Gilfillan said all western York County’s rural fire departments can raise the money on their own without needing to set up tax districts. All they need is hard work, he said.

“If they wanted to work, they could do it,” he said.

Fire training center sites vetted

The county hired Stewart-Cooper-Newell, an architecture firm, to review four sites for the county’s fire training operations. All sites are county-owned except for the training center’s current location on Ogden Road in Rock Hill.

The firm identified a long-term solution, the better choice if the county is willing to make the investment, and a short-term solution, better if the county is looking to keep costs low now.

The firm’s long-term option is a 41-acre, county-owned, site off of McFarland Road in York known as the North Landfill site.

Many of the recommended sites have floodplain and buffer issues that limit the space available for development. The 41-acre site on McFarland Road has the space for future growth and not as many complications as the other sites, according to the report.

If saving money is the county’s objective, the firm’s short-term option is using the existing fire training facility on Ogden Road.

This option has several disadvantages: there is little room for expansion because much of the property is in a floodplain and some of the facilities already flood when Wildcat Creek overflows. The firm recommended the drill tower used for training be replaced.

Stewart-Cooper-Newell is developing detailed cost estimates for both the short- and long-term options, including the costs of moving the facilities from Rock Hill to a York site.

Moore said the firm should have details by the council’s mid-October meeting, but they could be ready sooner.