Thursday, December 7, 2023

Burgaw FD requests fire tax increase for first time in nearly a decade

Extra funds would increase personnel, replace aging equipment

The Burgaw Fire Department is requesting a 2-cent fire tax increase in the Pender Central Fire District to cover additional personnel and replace aging equipment. (Port City Daily/Amy Passaretti)

BURGAW — The Burgaw Fire Department has requested additional money from Pender County commissioners twice over the last five years. Both times it was told no. Now, it is requesting a 2-cent increase on the fire tax within its roughly 150-square-mile coverage.

The last time a fire tax increase was implemented in the Pender Central Fire District was 2013, when it rose from 7 to 9 cents.

If commissioners voted to increase the fire tax to 11 cents — incorporated in collected property taxes — in its next budget, the Burgaw Fire Department could receive up to $63,000 extra annually. The added revenue would allow the department to replace aging fire engines and personal protective gear, as well as hire personnel to staff a three-member team 24/7. 

“Two cents isn’t near what we need, but we also know that we look at things incrementally and it’s been a long time since we increased the taxes,” Burgaw fire chief Jim Taylor said.

A 1947 state law allowed counties to impose special fire tax districts to improve rural fire protection. The taxes vary by district and are collected by county governments to be doled back to fire departments, but local governments are under no requirement to equally charge the same tax rate. 

Only three (Atkinson, Maple Hill and Penderlea Duplin) of the 12 Pender County fire districts impose taxes below 9 cents, with the highest being Long Creek Grady at 11 cents. The 425-person village of St. Helena, served by Burgaw Fire, would also see a fire tax increase from 9 to 11 cents.

The department asked county commissioners to raise the fire tax for Pender Central Fire District in 2017 but was denied.  

Two years later, Taylor said outgoing county manager Chad McEwen, who will leave his post in 60 days, told the fire department it had to raise its ISO evaluation (a nationally recognized measure of a fire department’s efficiency) prior to receiving additional funding.

In 2020, when Taylor asked commissioners for $150,000 out of the general fund for additional personnel and equipment upgrades, he was turned down again.

“They had already chosen multiple departments within the county to give money out of the general fund, which does affect people in Burgaw and Pender Central, to subsidize other fire districts,” Taylor said.

Last year, the fire department was evaluated and improved its ISO rating from a 9 to a 5.

Burgaw Fire Department’s coverage area includes the unincorporated Pender Central Fire District, with a population of 9,675 (double the size of Burgaw), and the village of St. Helena. 

Pender Central Fire District covers Burgaw, St. Helena and roughly 150 square miles of unincorporated area. (Courtesy file)

“If you look at the budget over the past several years, one-third of our budget overall comes from Pender Central, but two-thirds of our costs are in the Pender Central Fire District,” Taylor explained. “So, you see the backward correlation.”

Call volume has steadily increased over the last eight years, especially after response to medical calls was added to the department’s service this year. In 2014, annual average call volume for the Burgaw Fire Department jumped from about 500 to 625 and rose again three years later by another 100 annual calls. In 2021, Burgaw Fire Department responded to 688 calls, roughly half of which were in the Pender County Fire District.

In fiscal year 2021-2022, the Town of Burgaw budgeted $639,150 for direct fire department operations — not including facility maintenance, utilities, finance management, human resources and other ancillary costs. It collected approximately $330,000 from the Pender Central Fire District during the same time period.

Burgaw town manager James Gantt told Port City Daily he anticipates the need for at least 11% more in operating expenses for BFD in the upcoming budget.

“Additional personnel costs alone have increased the demand on the town’s budget, but it was a much-needed step in order to increase the level of response for our citizens and those within the central district and St. Helena,” Gantt said.

BFD was an all-volunteer organization until it added part-timers in 2008 and its first full-time firefighter in 2014. It has since increased full-timers from two to seven as of this year, citing dwindling volunteer interest and a spike in calls. 

In 2020, the fire station incurred a $110,000 remodel to add three bunk rooms to accommodate additional personnel. The station can now sleep 12, which Taylor said is especially vital for housing more staff and volunteers during hurricanes.

The department still relies heavily on volunteers and part-time staff. Two full-time firefighters are on duty 24 hours per day, seven days a week; however, when only two firefighters are available to respond to a fire, there is no one to enter the structure, if needed.

”You’re just doing defensive operations until the next company arrives,” Taylor explained. 

Prior to having two members on shift, BFD’s response time often exceeded three minutes. According to the National Fire Protection Association, fire suppression resources should be deployed within four minutes. Taylor said now it’s rare the team exceeds the three-minute mark. 

Monday evening, BFD held a public hearing about the proposed tax increase. According to Taylor, the meeting was recommended at the behest of McEwen (though not required by state law) prior to bringing the tax hike before commissioners.

“The Town of Burgaw is subsidizing county fire protection, and the current fire tax is not enough to support the fire protection,” Pender County fire marshal Mark Haraway said at the meeting.

Gantt first proposed the potential 2-cent tax increase to town commissioners at a February budget session. 

“The [county commissioners] pay Penderlea, Atkinson, Maple Hill out of their general fund, direct money to those fire departments,” Gantt told town commissioners. “We spent a lot more time out in the county … so, why are you giving [to] these but not giving [to] us?”

Burgaw commissioners unanimously supported the tax increase, according to Taylor, so the next step is for BFD to make its formal request to county commissioners. 

“They can deny it,” Taylor said of the Pender commissioners, “but they denied us in the past when they didn’t deny others.” 

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