Wednesday, September 07, 2011


By Butch Kirven
Published Sunday, September 4, 2011
The Greenville News
Section 9A --

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.

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