When government increases taxes there is a general push back from citizens. This year the Board of Commissioners voted to increase the fire tax from 2 cents to 5 cents, and the action was greeted with more support than outrage. Unlike most county funded services, fire protection is easy for people to understand. The need is simple — when your property is on fire, the fire departments responds and put it out.
Why did the commissioners increase this tax? Why was there no outrage? It came down to an issue of need. We are far beyond bucket brigades for fire protection. We have capacity to fight any structural fire in Scotland County. And there is a cost associated with that.
The county owns 14 fire trucks, the newest of which is 12 years old. The least expensive fire truck today is about $250,000. Prices quickly escalate from there. If the county purchased all replacement fire trucks and like equipment at one time, it would cost more than $3.5 million.
This is why the seven fire departments developed a realistic and affordable plan to replace the existing fleet of fire trucks over a period of 12 years. The increase in the fire tax rate makes it possible. All old equipment will be replaced over time and will allow the fire departments maintain the same level of protection and perhaps enhance it.
The anticipated benefit of the plan is it will improve ratings for the fire departments that will result in a decrease in home owner’s insurance in areas where the ratings are high. A lower rating results in lower home owner’s insurance premium.
Right now if your home is not within 1,000 feet of a fire hydrant, your insurance company bills you as if you were not covered by a fire department. The county and the fire departments are working to improve this. Even 12 years from now when the county has replaced the fleet of fire trucks and you have been fortunate enough to never have one in your yard, most home owners will realize a real cost benefit. For instance, a home owner with a home valued at $100,000 that gets an improved insurance rating could have a $200 reduction in their home owner’s policy. The increase in the fire tax would cost that same home owner $30. And yes, some home owners will not see savings because they already receive the maximum discount. There will be enough savings long term to offset the taxes county wide.
The increased fire tax will also support operational needs, the most obvious being the expense of keeping fire trucks fueled and ready for any emergency. Other operational costs include facility maintenance, training and equipping volunteer firefighters with protective gear and firefighting tools.
Before the fire tax increase the seven fire departments shared $225,000 a year for operations and supplemented that through fund raisers. The new fire tax will give the seven departments the ability to replace its fleet and the support of a more robust budget for operations.
So far I have not discussed the most important part of every fire department. It is not the trucks or even the $5,000 of equipment per fireman. It is the firemen themselves. In Scotland County there are only five paid firemen and they are all employees of the city of Laurinburg. That means there are more than 100 firemen who volunteer to protect their community.
It is volunteers who devote weekends and free time to training. It is volunteers who commit to fighting fires whenever, wherever, even if it means leaving work or responding to an emergency call in the middle of the night. Because our firefighters are volunteers, they save the county millions of dollars every year.
Fire protection is one of the best examples of partnership in Scotland County. The county funds the basic level of equipment for the departments. The volunteers make the departments work. The residents participate in fundraisers to supplement operational costs.
When you receive your tax bill and take note of the fire tax keep in mind that the fire departments provide a service to keep us safe, and it’s a service that would not be possible without dedicated volunteer firefighters and county and citizen support. The fire departments and the service they provide work because we pull together as a community. Be proud of that. I am.
Kevin Patterson is Scotland County’s manager.