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Let me begin by expressing my enormous respect for volunteer fire departments and the people who man them.
Firefighting is, by its nature, a part-time occupation in that the amount of time spent actually fighting fires is far less than full time and there is a limit to how much time can be spent on equipment maintenance and training. The people who volunteer their time to serve as firefighters deserve our utmost respect and support.
The Lancaster County Fire Service provides six full-time employees and an annual budget of a million dollars to support the 19 local fire departments in Lancaster County. This money provides fire risk management services, firetrucks, training and allowances for fuel and equipment to each local fire department. Every resident and business in Lancaster County supports his/her local fire department via his/her county taxes. Local fire departments normally raise some money to supplement the funds received from the county.
At its Oct. 26 meeting, County Council began a process that will reduce the Sun City Carolina Lakes, Belair and Edenmoor special tax districts’ tax from $90 per dwelling per year to $75 per dwelling per year and impose a tax of $75 per year per dwelling and $75 per year for each 2,500 square feet occupied by a business on all residences and businesses in the Indian Land Fire District.
The new tax is expected to yield about $350,000 per year. The purpose of the tax will be to fund the new Indian Land Fire Protection District. The move was instituted and backed by the Indian Land Action Council.
Five things about the proposed Indian Land Fire District bother me.
The first thing that bothers me, and the one that bothers me the most, is that the tax makes no allowance for ability to pay. There are many living in Indian Land for whom this tax will be a severe burden.
To send these people a $75 tax bill in January is a travesty, asking them to go without essentials so that the fire district can have a large bank balance. Virtually all modern taxes contain provisions so that those who have less pay less. Why does this tax contain no such provision?
The second thing that bothers me is that the tax is far too high. A couple of years ago, the Indian Land Fire Department budget was $25,000 per year. The department receives support from the county, which provides firetrucks, a fuel allotment and $6,500 per year for equipment, given $1,500 in matching funds. The proposed Indian Land Fire District tax is anticipated to yield $350,000 per year. Why is it that a fire department, which was happy with $25,000 per year last year suddenly needs $350,000 per year to operate? The short answer is that the department needs $75,000 in one-time money to replace its worn-out equipment and about $100,000 per year in operating funds. The amount of money actually required could be paid with the $186,000 per year provided by the existing special tax districts, which were created for the purpose. The $350,000 per year to be provided by the proposed tax is far too much money; the tax is far too high.
The third thing that bothers me is that County Council is breaking faith with the people who lived in the area before Sun City was built. Communities catering only to older populations tend to produce extra EMS and fire calls. In South Carolina, the people using a service pay more for it – thus the state parks have entrance fees, hunters and fishermen buy licenses and communities serving only older populations have special tax districts. Now that the communities are filled with voters who don’t want to pay the tax, County Council is spreading the additional cost over the entire population, including those without the ability to pay it. This is a breech of faith with the original population.
The fourth thing that bothers me is the provision that the board that will be set up to administer the fire district can be self-perpetuating. The board can vote every two years to reappoint the members with expiring terms and the same members can thus serve unlimited terms. This is an extremely poor practice in an organization handling public money.
The fifth thing that bothers me is the assertion that the funds from the special tax districts can be used only to hire full-time firefighters. County Council has the authority to modify or repeal and replace the special tax districts to permit use of the funds for things such as replacing worn-out equipment.
Brief inquiries indicate that the less fortunate, who will be hit hardest by this tax, have no idea that it is coming. For many of them, the first notification that they will receive is a $75 addition to their county property tax bill next year. Often this will double or triple the tax bill that they have been paying. What publicity there has been has not emphasized that the creation of the Indian Land Fire District carries with it a substantial property tax increase. This situation is an abrogation of its responsibility by County Council.
What can you do?
Call or e-mail your Indian Land County Councilman, Larry McCullough, at (803) 802-5888 or email@example.com.
Attend the public hearing at 6 p.m. Nov. 30 in the Lancaster County Administration Building, 101 N. Main St., Lancaster.
Make sure that you are registered to vote by Dec. 18.
Vote against the nonbinding referendum on Jan. 18, 2011, at your regular polling place.
Attend the public hearing at 6 p.m. Jan. 25, 2011 in the Lancaster County Administration Building.
Not sure if this affects you? Call the county assessor at (803) 285-6964.
A more complete discussion of this matter complete with links and maps is at www.vanwyckpress.com; click on the link to the latest edition of The Van Wyck News.