By Butch Kirven
Published Sunday, September 4, 2011
The Greenville News
Section 9A -- http://bit.ly/qDmZ98
Greenville County is notoriously tightfisted with tax dollars. The last time County Council raised tax millage for the county’s general fund operations was 1993.
Since then County Council has consistently decreased tax millage.
Aside from its own business, County Council is the approving fiscal authority for many, but not all, separate Special Purpose Tax Districts, a task complicated because the Council does not have operational control of these fire districts, relying instead on the commissioners of each one.
Fire protection is not optional. Lives and property depend on the level of protection provided. Fire protection services are paid for directly by property taxes collected from the citizens who are the beneficiaries of the services. Needs for fire protection services and the capabilities to provide them vary greatly throughout Greenville County.
That means funding levels for each fire district must be judged on the merits of each case, and not on a “no-tax increase” dogma that does not account for the actual situation in each fire district. Some increases may be justified, some may not, but each should be evaluated carefully and business-like decisions made for each one.
There are some 30 separate Fire Districts, Special Purpose Fire Districts and Fire Service Areas in Greenville County. Thirteen were created by County Council, and 17 were created by the state Legislature, eight with statutory budget limits, and nine with full autonomy and unlimited taxing authority. Only the first group and those with limited autonomy require County Council’s approval for millage adjustments.
Each Fire District contains a specific array of demographic and economic characteristics determining how fire protection is provided and funded. Consider both ends of the spectrum: Boiling Springs Fire Department serves a densely populated 15-square mile area with a mix of residential, commercial, and industrial properties.
Dunklin Fire Department serves a 28-square mile largely rural-residential area, including large amounts of agricultural or undeveloped land that produces little tax revenue. It is obvious that these differences determine how each department is manned, equipped, trained and how much it all costs. Comparing them would be like comparing apples to oranges.
In the case of Boiling Springs Fire Department, the facts and circumstances support their request for County Council’s approval for a bond to pay for a strategically located new station to serve their densely populated area and diverse mix of property types. In the case of Dunklin Fire Department, the circumstances and facts support their request for a very modest increase in revenue just to maintain the basic capabilities which the citizens currently rely on.
Despite the archaic arrangement of so many fire and other special purpose tax districts, no local service does more to protect life and property than the fire departments. They do much more than put out fires. Firefighters are usually first to arrive when anyone has a stroke or a heart attack. When a traffic accident occurs, the rescue vehicle from the local fire station is usually the first to arrive on the scene. When corporations and industries look for places to locate, a top priority is the quality of fire protection and ISO ratings.
Fire departments and firefighters are essential; they save lives, support economic development, give us peace of mind, and are taken for granted.
Changes in state law a few years ago limited tax millage increases to a combination of population increase plus a cost-ofliving index. That led local government entities to review their budgets every year and to ask for the allowed small millage increase maintain services.
However, the new state tax law also created a problem by having so many subdivisions of local government asking for the allowable adjustment in millage, which appeared to those not thinking through the matter that County Council was on a tax increasing binge.
Having so many separate tax districts is not an ideal system, but it is the one we have, and we have to make it work. The high level of cooperation among the fire departments is amazing and saves money. They have a preplanned system to back-up engaged units. They share training resources and equipment. Many firefighters are volunteers who spend enormous amounts of time learning and honing the skills that can make the difference between life and death.
In order to provide the level of resources essential to maintaining readiness County Council and citizens must fully appreciate all that fire departments do in serving the community.
Without adequate resources, readiness will deteriorate, training will be reduced, outdated equipment will not be replaced, and facilities not maintained.
If public safety is important, money has to be spent to keep fire departments capable of performing their missions. Citizens seem to understand this and County Council should.
Labels: Boiling Springs Fire District, SPD, Special Purpose Districts