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BOLIVIA—County commissioners are looking for a better way to finance fire departments.
At the county’s annual budget workshop Feb. 27, the county board mulled options to end fire fees that are paid to fund fire departments.
“I’ve discovered over the years the disparity of funding,” chairman Phil Norris said.
Norris emphasized commissioners are in the early stages of looking at the issue and don’t intend to make a change in the next fiscal year without deliberation.
County manager Marty Lawing told the board Brunswick County is one of two counties out of 100 in North Carolina that use fire fees. The rest use a fire tax.
Using fire fees only generates revenues inside the six-mile radius of the fire departments. According to county tax collector Ken Perry, that leaves 9,700 properties outside of any of fire district that don’t pay fire fees, but still receive fire protection.
That includes two municipalities. The Village of Bald Head Island and St. James Plantation do not pay fire fees.
The fire fee system is also deficient in providing adequate funding for each fire department, whose districts vary in size and density, officials said.
Lawing said some departments receive sufficient funds for their budget, such as Leland, which receives $1.4 million. But just up the road, the Navassa fire department receives only $67,000.
“Fewer structures (in the fire district) equals less fire tax, because there is less to tax,” Perry said.
Other items such as personal property, public utilities and motor vehicles are not subject to fire fees.
Fire fees also cause confusion for taxpayers, Lawing said.
The fees are included on their county tax bill but are listed separately, so some people pay their tax bill but leave off their fire fees payment.
To better fund fire departments, county staff recommends abandoning fire fees and using the ad valorem property tax.
The fire chiefs would present budget requests to the county staff in the same way department heads do.
“We hope it would provide more money to departments that are struggling, but not reduce money to the departments that have ample funds,” Lawing said.
Perry provided some estimates for the amount of funding a fire tax would generate compared to fire fees.
He said fire fees are based on square footage. Brunswick County has 57,000 residential homes of up to 3,000 square feet. In fire fees, they generate $6.7 million. With a fire tax $5 million would come from those properties.
The 2,700 homes larger than 3,000 square feet would pay $801,000 in fire taxes compared to $878,000 in fees.
Commercial and industrial building revenue would drop from $1.5 million to $1.35 million. The elderly, disabled and veterans who pay a cumulative $183,000 in fire fees would see that number drop to $39,000 as part of their property tax.
The 9,700 parcels that currently don’t pay fires fees would pay the fire tax, generating $1.6 million, which makes up any difference in revenues between fees and taxes.
Adding fire tax to property taxes was one option presented, but others included creating a special property tax district.
“We’ve got to come up with something that outlives us (county commissioners) and takes us up a level,” commissioner Marty Cooke said. “Something that funds you but is not a nightmare to fund.”
“I’m not sure if we can accomplish this in this year’s budget, but we should try,” Norris said. “The sooner we can come up with a solution the better it is for our citizens.”
Norris said the county officials intend to have a lot of meetings to receive input from the public.
“Every fire department, every municipality will have their own opinions. Before we fill this room up we need to gather their concerns, find out what they want to see accomplished and do this slow and easy and thoughtfully,” he said.
Commissioner Scott Phillips said the county’s fire chiefs plan to have a chiefs meeting on fire fees and bring their presentation to the county’s fire committee.
Phillips said anyone who wants to express concerns before public hearings are scheduled should send them to email@example.com.
Brian Slattery is a staff writer for The Brunswick Beacon. Reach him at 754-6890 or firstname.lastname@example.org.