Greenville County studies fire district funding

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Designed to provide water, sewer service, fire protection or street lighting, a special tax district or special service district allows residents of a specific area to exclusively pay for these services. In Greenville County, approximately 30 special districts provide fire protection, and County Council is launching an effort to simplify how those districts are administered and ultimately funded.
Last week, an ad hoc committee, including council members H.G. "Butch" Kirven, Liz Seman, Joe Dill and Dan Rawls, met to organize and begin discussing strategies to address fire department funding. Representatives from various fire departments will be asked for input as part of the committee, said Kirven.
Greenville County fire districts or fire service areas come in a variety of forms, including those that are created by the county and others that are created by the state and overseen by the county. There are still others that are autonomous and have no county oversight. In addition, some districts contract with nearby municipalities to provide fire protection service.
Each year, districts created by the county or requiring a county resolution must appeal to County Council to approve millage increases to fund their operations and capital improvements. In 2012, fewer districts petitioned for millage increases and Kirven predicts a marked increase in 2013.
Council Chairman Bob Taylor said the subcommittee was formed in an attempt to bring uniformity to the process of districts requesting millage increases. He said one goal is to work on setting standards for both council and the district's commissioners on making a judgment regarding millage increases.
Taylor said the committee will be able to learn the challenges faced by some of the departments and potentially offer help in everything from training for commissioners to working to consolidate orders for equipment or supplies to save funds.
"It will be an educational process for council, too," he said.
When up to 20 districts approach council between the months of April and June to ask for millage increase approval, it appears that the county, rather than the specific district, is raising taxes at every turn, said Kirven.
Depending on its findings, the subcommittee may investigate special district referendums to consider millage increases, thus eliminating the council approval step, said Kirven. Some changes, like referendums, would require the involvement of the state legislative delegation to change state law, he said. Council member Joe Baldwin expressed support for the referendum option during a recent council meeting.
Because of the diverse nature of topography and development in Greenville County, the fire districts serve vastly different areas and draw from different tax bases. The degree to which a district is funded may affect its fire suppression rating, which in turn can affect homeowner insurance rates. Taylor said he wants council to receive input from all types of fire departments, including those with full-time and volunteer staff.
The committee is scheduled to meet, along with members of the Greenville County Fire Chiefs Association and local legislators, on March 1 at noon at County Square.