Kershaw County Council took its first legal steps Tuesday evening to dismantle its existing fire protection district in order to create a new one that would allow it to impose enough millage to begin the transition to a profession fire service.
Council approved, on a 6-1 vote with Councilman Jimmy Jones voting against, first reading by title only of an ordinance to create user fees and millage within the new fire protection district. Council then approved, also by title only, on a 5-2 vote with Jones and Councilman David Snodgrass voting against, an ordinance that would create the new fire protection district itself as of July 1, 2020.
Council members, County Administrator Vic Carpenter and County Attorney Ken DuBose participated in a long discussion ahead of both votes. Jones expressed dismay that a referendum discussed as an option in a special ad hoc committee that included himself and councilmen Ben Connell and Tom Gardner wasn’t brought forward as a viable option Tuesday. Jones, joined by Snodgrass, also expressed concerns over the possibility of “double dipping” -- that some citizens could be charged twice for fire protection.
The discussion began with Carpenter explaining that work toward a new fire district began more than a year ago, leading to the ad hoc committee. He said some of the recommendations from those ad hoc committee meetings were able to be effected in the current budget cycle that included the purchase of new software for first responder call tracking.
“In the fall, there was a presentation from staff to council showing recommendations as a result of all that study. The recommendations were for the county to move towards a professional fire service, meaning that there would be full-time coverage, ultimately, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, serving the entire county,” Carpenter said.
He later clarified that the new fire district would cover the entire unincorporated area of the county. Further work, Carpenter said, included discussion of both legal and funding issues.
During his presentation, Carpenter displayed heat maps of fire calls, first responder calls and the two combined. The highest call volumes appeared to be in the more heavily populated areas of the West Wateree, east Camden and the Bethune/Cassatt communities.
The first step, which Carpenter said has already been completed, was to improve recruitment and retention of volunteer firefighters.
Next, he said, is to create 10 professional full-time firefighting positions this year adding to two previously hired for a total of 12 professional firefighter positions to work 12-hour daytime shifts when most volunteers are not available. They would be stationed at what Carpenter called “hubs” at Blaney (Elgin) to serve the West Wateree, and Cassatt to serve east Camden and Bethune. Those hubs would then have spokes made up of the existing volunteer fire departments.
“The volunteer fire stations will continue to exist. The volunteer fire departments are crucial to any plan we have going forward,” Carpenter said, adding that a new EMS station is being proposed for late 2020.
Carpenter explained after the meeting that professional firefighters hired to fill those positions would rotate between the Blaney and Cassatt hubs.
Under the plan, three more professional positions would be added to the Blaney station in 2020 in order to begin moving from 12-hour coverage to 24 hours. Things would remain that way through 2021, but then add another three professional positions to Blaney in 2022 in order to complete the transition to 24-hour coverage.
Then, in 2023, two more professional positions would be added to the Cassatt station as it begins to transition to 24-hour coverage. That transition would continue through 2024; in 2025, another three professional positions would be added at Cassatt to complete the transition to 24-hour coverage, bringing the number of professional firefighters to 21.
Carpenter then moved to explaining the possible revenue options to pay for the services the new fire district would provide, including the hiring of these positions and building of new facilities. Those options are:
• Impose a fee of $25 per parcel and $25 per car, which -- using three cars per parcel -- Carpenter said would average of $100 per parcel
• Impose a millage rate of 23.8 mils -- effectively a 14 mil increase to that currently imposed for the existing fire district -- equal to $92 for every $100,000 value of a home.
• Hold a referendum on the issue.
Carpenter then compared the fee and millage options to what is charged by the Lugoff Fire District for coverage by Lugoff Fire-Rescue (LF-R), and the city of Camden for the Camden Fire Department (CFD). He said LF-R charges 31.4 mils and a $23 fee so that the owner of typical home of $100,000 pays $127 a year for LF-R coverage. The city of Camden, he said, charges a fee based on the value of the house so that a $100,000 home costs $190 a year for CFD coverage.
Carpenter said staff is recommending the county start by imposing the $25 per parcel/car fee in order to begin collecting funds for the new fire district so it can begin building facilities and hiring employees, and then switch to millage when the new fire district goes into effect in July 2020. He said that would give the county time to work out details with the towns of Bethune and Elgin and for county residents served by the city of Camden.
Snodgrass asked Carpenter what would happen to those residents in unincorporated areas who are served by another fire service, such as those in east Camden served by the CFD.
“Currently, all those people who are covered by the city of Camden’s fire district that don’t live in the city limits, they are in a separate tax district as far as the county is concerned,” Carpenter responded. “So, we know every single person who is in that area and those people, because we have already identified them, in going with a system of going with fees in the initial year, they would not be affected at all.
“Moving forward to the following year with millage, part of the process of working out the details of getting that ordinance and that millage implemented would require us to work with the city of Camden as well as Lugoff and Elgin (on) the details so that, again, they’re not affected. So, nobody would be affected by the fee and nobody would be affected by the millage. If council approves that going forward, we’ll have that year to make sure that’s the case.”
Carpenter confirmed that such residents would continue to pay their monthly fee to the Camden and receive city fire services even after the new district is created.
Jones said he was uncomfortable moving forward without first giving voters a chance to express themselves through a referendum, something he said was a “huge part” of the ad hoc committee discussions. He acknowledged it would cost $50,000 for the county to hold a referendum.
“But the way I look at it -- I know there’s some who don’t feel we need to spend $50,000 for a referendum, but I can assure you we have spent a lot of money on things I think, to me, that are less important than … hearing the voice of the people,” Jones said.
Council Sammie Tucker Jr. pointed out that the county itself and any of its employees would be prohibited from involvement in crafting any referendum language or promoting its outcome. Tucker said he was not even sure if volunteer firefighters would be allowed to organize a referendum.
“Who’s the group, who are the people or organization that’s going to run it?” Tucker asked.
Snodgrass agreed, and checked with DuBose on the need for a referendum at the next general election, which would be November 2020, to be handled by a citizens group who wanted the fire district created. DuBose said such a group would have to craft the language -- including any millage -- obtain signatures from 15 percent of residents in the proposed district, and then bring that petition for a referendum to council. Council would then have to certify the petition and call for the referendum. Council Chairman Julian Burns said that could delay implementing the new tax district until 2023.
Connell said that S.C. Act 388 -- passed in 2006 and which shifted a portion of the state’s tax burden from owner-occupied (“primary”) homes to a statewide 1-cent sales tax increase -- placed a cap on how much of an increase in millage counties and municipalities can enact. The current county fire protection district is tied to that cap, and Connell said the increased millage the county could impose “wouldn’t even cover” one firefighter.
Burns said while there is not a rush to create the new fire district, there is “a matter of urgency.”
“For every council since 2016, this has been a priority … because this is an essential, life-saving function that’s been made very hard by Act 388,” Burns said, adding that while the discussion was emotional, it was also data-driven.
At that point, he called for the vote, with Jones casting the lone “no” vote.
The discussion continued as council considered the vote for the new tax fire district itself in July 2020. Carpenter again explained that the recommendation is to use a fee to get started and millage for continued funding. Gardner and Tucker agreed the fee would be a good first step to move forward.
Jones had Carpenter again confirm that the new district would cover only the unincorporated areas of the county. Carpenter said that would, indeed, be the case, prompting Jones to bring up the possibility of “double-dipping” residents in unincorporated areas already being charged by the city of Camden.
Snodgrass said that since he felt that millage would be more equitable than a fee for continued funding for the new fire district, he asked why the previous ordinance included a fee for a year.
“As Mr. Jones just pointed out, the key term here is ‘unincorporated part of the county,’” Carpenter replied. “As Mr. DuBose pointed out a little bit ago, under Act 388, we’re limited in our ability to raise millage in the necessary amount. Therefore, that inhibits the existing fire district’s ability to raise millage. In order to raise enough millage, we have to create a new fire district. By creating a new fire district, the way is law is written, the new fire district will apply to the unincorporated area of the county. It does not make a distinction (of an) unincorporated (area) served by another district. So, the new district is created in order to provide us the necessary funding because of Act 388, (but) creates a new set of issues that we will then have to overcome during the coming year.”
One of those issues, Carpenter said, is making sure Bethune and Elgin have a way to provide the funding to cover the fire service the county provides. The other issue is that the county will need to work with Camden in finding what he called a “work-around” so that non-Camden residents served by the CFD “do not have a negative impact on their tax notices.”
Carpenter said the county needs a year to work out those details.
“As a worst-case scenario -- let’s say for some reason we can’t work things out with all three municipalities -- we can just simply cancel that ordinance and stick with our current ordinance and fee in place. It’s not the best solution for financing for the reasons we’ve already talked about. A fee is very regressive, it hits people at the lower end of the spectrum much harder than people at the upper end,” Carpenter said, adding that unlike a fee, millage grows as the economy grows.
Tucker agreed that if council is unhappy with the way things turn out, a member can always motion to repeal either of the ordinances, something he said he would do himself if “double-dipping” could not be avoided.
A short time later, the vote came back 6-2, with Jones and Snodgrass voting against.
Later in the meeting, during council briefings, Snodgrass, who represents District 5, which includes east Camden, said he struggled with voting against the creation of the fire district.
“I support having more professional firefighters, but I voted ‘no’ because of the way it was worded,” Snodgrass said. “It would have a negative impact on a lot of people in District 5.”
In other budget-related business, council unanimously approved first reading, by title only, of an ordinance that would enact the FY 2020 budget on July 1. Carpenter confirmed that the proposed budget is a balanced one with no tax or fee increases. Council also unanimously approved first reading, by title only, of ordinances that would set the mileage rate for FY 2020 as well as amending and restating Chapter 13 of the county code of ordinances regarding public utilities.
(The online version of this story has been modified to show the correct amount of millage currently being charged by the Lugoff Fire District for services provided by Lugoff-Fire Rescue. A correction will appear in the C-I's May 21, 2019, print edition.)