Tax bills overcharged fire district residents

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Fee is $15 higher than it should be

Reece Murphy
Lancaster County officials are scrambling to figure out how to handle a $15 fee overcharge for Panhandle residents who live in the Indian Land and Pleasant Valley fire-protection districts.
Lancaster County Administrator Steve Willis said the error came to light over the weekend after residents in the areas received their tax bills and found they’d been charged a $90 fire-protection district fee instead of the correct $75 fee.   
Willis said the error was the result of a spreadsheet software error that tabulated the fees at the former Sun City Carolina Lakes and Edenmoor fire district rates and human error in not catching it.
“Apparently in the budget ordinance spreadsheet, we picked up the old fire (district) fee and not the new fire district fee,” Willis said.
“We looked at it and saw the Indian Land and Pleasant Valley fees were supposed to be the same this year, so we changed it to the Indian Land fee total, not noticing the error,” he said. “Since it was the former fee total, we didn’t catch it.”
Willis said while there are several procedures for correcting tax bill errors, the county is uncertain how to proceed with correcting the fee overcharge.
The problem, Willis said, stems largely from the fact that the county budget ordinance passed in June calls for the exact amount estimated at the erroneous $90 amount, which makes the overcharge an ordinance error, not a tax error.
Will said county attorneys are already working to determine how to handle the matter, but options may be limited.
“At a bare minimum, we can fix it by taking the fee down to $60 next year, and everybody’s back to where they are supposed to be,” Wiliis said. “So it’s certainly a fixable problem. Is it fixable this year? I don’t know.
“I just don’t want the folks in Indian Land getting mad at the fire district people, or the firefighters, auditor’s office or the treasurer’s office,” he said.
Willis said three months into the fiscal year no other similar problems have been reported and the error seems to have been limited to the fire district fees.
The county will update fire district residents concerning the county’s course of action through Carolina Gateway and The Lancaster News as considerations continue, Willis said.
Indian Land voters overwhelmingly approved the Indian Land Fire Protection District by ballot initiative in January 2011,  with County Council approving the district and its $75 fee the next month.
The Indian Land fire district, which replaced the Carolina Lakes and Edenmoor special fire districts, was based on the Pleasant Valley Fire Protection District approved by residents in the northern tip of the Panhandle in 2006.
The money collected by the fee goes directly to the Indian Land and Pleasant Valley volunteer fire departments.