Wednesday, July 10, 2013
Berkeley County Council approved a new set of rural fire service fees that should eventually help rural fire departments meet rising operating costs.
Justice and Public Safety Committee Chairman and council member Ken Gunn said the fee structure change was necessary.
“We have to find a way to operate more efficiently,” Gunn said. “The funds created by these new fees will pay for an independent study that will help us show where money is going and how we can spend it more efficiently.”
Gunn proposed an increase in the fire tax paid by property owners of vacant land, to bring them in line with what homeowners pay. That increase would pay for a study to determine how to make sure Berkeley County fire protection is where it needs to be, including whether or not a countywide fire service might be a better option. Originally, a flat $40 service fee increase across the board was considered, but scrapped in favor of this new, tiered plan.
Council compromised on a minor dispute by reducing the service fee for undeveloped property from a maximum $100 to $70 annually. The cap reduction fee matches undeveloped property with a single family home.
Gunn added the current annual budget between the county’s 26 rural fire departments runs about $3.9 million. “In discussions that I’ve had with various people, we feel that it’s time to look at what the debt issue is,” he said.
Current fire service fees will increase proportionately with the amount of property owned. Berkeley County property with a house is taxed anywhere from $25 to $100 per year for fire taxes. If the property is not developed, property owners only pay between $2 and $25 a year. That means the owner of a 500-acre piece of land only pays about $25 a year in fire taxes.
“We felt that that was not appropriate, in that they were taxing houses at $70,” Gunn said.
Under the new agreement the maximum service fee for undeveloped property increased to match that of a house at $70. “This will follow the current rate which is charged at eight different levels,” Gunn said. “We consolidated these levels to four levels.”
Council member Steve Davis opposed the increase. “You are putting the burden of the tax onto the shoulders of those who can least afford it,” he said.
The motion passed 6-1 with council members Caldwell Pinckney absent and Steve Davis voting against the proposal.
Council also looked to review its current EMS working arrangement with Hanahan and Goose Creek. At present, Berkeley County shoulders the burden of a $420,000 annual cost of providing a medic unit van with insurance to each municipality. The county is also responsible for repairs. Hanahan and Goose Creek staff the medic units but all funds generated by the EMS service remain in the municipality.
“I believe we need to review these contracts due to the large amount of money being spent by the county,” Gunn said. “We’re putting out all this money but we aren’t enjoying any of the benefits of it.”
Gunn said these service contracts have been in place long before any current council member sat on county council, “The contracts can be terminated within 90 days by either party. These are longstanding contracts that have existed long before any of us have been here.”
Berkeley County currently has 17 medic unit vans placed in 11 different locations, including Goose Creek and Hanahan. Two vans are used as backups.
“Our fleet is aging,” Gunn said. “We received two new Type One Modular Units last year. One vehicle has 11,000 miles on it while the other has 10,000 miles already. At the rate they are being used now, their warranties will run out in six months.”
Current medic units have an average odometer reading of 154,000 miles. Only one medic unit has been added over the last three years with one budgeted for the coming year. Council approved looking at adding more vehicles to help replenish the aging fleet.
“We are running the wheels off these vehicles,” Gunn said.