After most of three hours and 10 minutes, 24 speakers during four public hearings and public comment period, and multiple amendments, Kershaw County Council passed third and final reading of three ordinances setting a fire fee service fee, the Fiscal Year 2020 budget and the millage by which to raise revenue for that budget.
Twelve people each spoke during council’s public comment period and a public hearing on a proposed $25 per house or vehicle fee to fund fire service improvements across the county.
One speaker, Jeff Mattox, signed up to speak -- and did speak -- during all three public hearings.
During the fire fee public hearing, Mattox declared that “tonight’s the night -- either freedom, or taxes and fees.” Mattox claimed that not only the county, but the country is still in the throes of an economic depression, but that council believed everything was “lollipops and rainbows” as they continue to take money from citizens.
“People are living paycheck to paycheck,” he said.
He called council members “ostriches with their heads in the sand.” Mattox also accused council of using a “monkey see, monkey do” philosophy by mimicking state and federal legislators in terms of increasing spending, necessitating them to raise taxes and fees, something he called “extortion.”
Mattox also claimed that what county council was doing is a form of socialism. He also compared the supposed need for the fire fee to a “broken window fallacy,” asking “what might have been” if council had spent money on fire services instead of on “failed” economic development efforts and the Wateree River park parcel he and others Tuesday night called “swamp land.”
“Council only sees what it wants to see, so they can’t see the coming economic storm,” Mattox said.
Mattox continued with these themes during the other public hearings, claiming that “government is a manifestation of Satan” and repeatedly using the question “Who will build the roads?” as an example of how government claims it is a necessary evil.
During a public hearing on wording changes to the county’s public utility policies, Faye Haynes used her time to try to counter what Mattox had said.
“Unemployment is at the lowest level in years,” Haynes said. “We are not in a recession. Government is not evil. Sometimes what they do is right, and sometimes it is wrong.”
Two women only identified themselves as “Jane Doe” and “Ms. Jones.” Later, during council briefings, Vice Chair Sammie Tucker Jr. said they should not have been allowed to speak.
Many of those speaking Tuesday, whether during public comment or the fire fee public hearing said they were not against helping the Kershaw County Fire Service (KCSF) improve, but felt that the $25/$25 fee was not the way to do so. Several of those speaking said they were on fixed incomes.
Irving Branham, who identified himself as a landlord said he would have to likely pass on the additional fees to his tenants.
“It’s hurting the most who need the most,” Branham said.
Dale Kirkland, who said he lived in the Porter Crossroads area of Lugoff, said it seemed council was trying to find ways to tax or levy fees on everything -- “Are you going to tax our cats and dogs?” -- all without voters’ say-so.
Doug Fielding felt council’s actions were abridging, or diminishing, citizens’ First Amendment rights.
“As long as at least four of you agree, you can seize property and incarcerate people for not paying,” Fielding said.
All of the comments came before a single vote took place for third and final reading on any of these items.
On separate amendments from Councilman David Snodgrass, the fire fee was eliminated for all vehicles and for all unimproved parcels. Improved parcels -- those with at least one structure -- would be charged $29 each instead of $25. To make up for the difference, an amendment by Snodgrass to the millage ordinance increased the current fire district millage by just .9 mil. County Administrator Vic Carpenter confirmed the combination would equal the original $25 house/vehicle proposal.
“I did this because of the feedback from the people,” Snodgrass said, referring to both comments made at council’s May 28 meeting and while speaking to people individually during the two weeks since. “I never really liked it (the fee), but thought we could do something more creatively.”
Councilman Ben Connell said no one spoke more eloquently to why a fee of some kind was needed than Brian Spitzer. Spitzer, who spoke during public comment, is a captain with the Kershaw County Fire Service. Several people, including Councilman Jimmy Jones, said citizens should have been able to vote for or against new fees or millage in a referendum, and were upset that an ad hoc committee did not bring forward a recommendation to have one.
Spitzer said that ad hoc committee not only consisted of councilmen Connell, Jones and Tom Gardner, but of 20 to 25 fire personnel. Connell later added that it also included community members. Spitzer said the reason the committee did not recommend a referendum is because it would take at least two years to make an impact.
“Our fire service is in a crisis. When I joined the fire service in 1999, my station had 30 people. Now we have four,” he said.
Spitzer said standards require 24 firefighters to be on the scene of a house fire; at the last one he went to, there were only three.
“It’s dangerous. Homes are burning to the ground and lives are being lost. We had a child lose their life because we didn’t have firefighters to respond. We are in a crisis,” Spitzer repeated, citing not only a lack of manpower, but failing equipment. “The reality is, if we don’t do this, we’re not going to have a fire service. If you want more, you have to pay more. Please pass this, or you’re not going to have a fire service in two years.”
Lugoff-Elgin Water Authority (L-EWA) General Manger Mike Hancock appeared to surprise people with what he had to say Tuesday night. Hancock commended council for its effort to improve firefighting in the county. One benefit, he said, would be improved ISO ratings used by insurers to set rates for home and business owners.
However, Hancock said 40 percent of the “score” ISO ratings are based on is water supply.
“Your plan doesn’t address that,” he said. “There are many places without a fire hydrant, and there are specific requirements for them.”
Hancock said he would like to know how the county was going to address that, and that the L-EWA “stands ready to assist.”
At separate times, Burns and Snodgrass mentioned that a brand new pumper truck for the Westville fire station was outside the government center for the public to see. Snodgrass said that tankers and pumpers are commonly used to deliver the water needed for firefighting efforts in rural areas.
The idea behind the fee and additional millage being passed this year is to begin raising funds not only to assist existing volunteers, but to prepare for the creation of a replacement fire district and the addition of “professional,” or full-time firefighters. That set of firefighters would augment volunteers by eventually, and collectively, being available 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
The new fire district would not be created until the beginning of the 2021 fiscal year and only if an ordinance creating it that was passed on first reading earlier this year passes second and third reading when it is reintroduced, likely in the fall. This is to give the county extra time to work with Bethune and Elgin on furnishing them protection, and with the Camden and legislators to ensure non-Camden residents receiving Camden Fire Department services are not double-charged.
Council voted 5-2 on Snodgrass’ fire fee amendment, with councilmen Al Bozard and Jimmy Jones voting against. Bozard and Jones also cast the only two “no” votes for the amended fire fee ordinance. Bozard said he was concerned about the water access problem Hancock mentioned, and that he received so many phone calls -- including 75 during the two days leading up to the vote -- asking him to vote against the fee. Jones also objected due to the water supply issue, but also because voters were not getting to participate in a referendum, and because he had learned that the some portion of the revenue from the original $25/$25 fee would not be able to be collected in time to make the recommended improvements to the fire service.
“This was not well thought out,” Jones said of the plan to bring on full-time firefighters. “There is no emergency. If there is one now, then there should have been in the last five to 10 years.”
Other council members again explained their conclusion that a referendum would have delayed effecting the changes the county wants to make, by at least two to three years.
“We’ve done our job,” Snodgrass said. “We’ve got the information, and we’ve met in the middle. A referendum is only for true county-wide issues.”
Snodgrass pointed out that not every homeowner in the county -- only those in the current county fire district -- would pay the fee and additional millage.
Council then moved on to the budget ordinance, unanimously voting in favor of an amendment from Tucker to add $10,000 to Sheriff Lee Boan’s salary since he was brought in as a newly elected sheriff at $20,000 below what he should be making. Tucker said the remaining $10,000 could be added as council continues to evaluate Boan’s performance.
Council also passed an amendment from Jones to find an additional $10,000 for the United Way of Kershaw County. The vote was 4-2 with Gardner abstaining. Bozard and Connell voted “no.”
Council then voted 5-2 for the full, amended budget ordinance, with Bozard and Jones voting against.
Snodgrass’ amendment for the .9 mil increase to the millage ordinance from the current fire service district also passed 5-2, with Bozard and Jones voting “no” again.
Bozard and Jones also voted against a millage amendment from Tucker adding 2.4 mils for a Central Carolina Technical College (CCTC) operations and scholarships. On May 28, council passed (6-1) a similar amendment from Tucker for a similar 2.33-mil line item for CCTC. Tucker said he was now using the new millage amount because the treasurer’s office said the 2.33 mils would not “work” as originally planned.
The amended millage ordinance passed 5-2, with Bozard and Jones voting against once again.
Council unanimously voted for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency-required changes to the county’s code chapter on public utilities.
Council also voted unanimously to approve the Lugoff Fire District’s budget, which contained no increases in fees or millage.
In other business, council:
• unanimously approved a proclamation designating June 15 as Elder Abuse Awareness Day; and
• entered into executive session to discussing a personnel contract at the Kershaw County Detention Center and contract involving Woodward Airfield.