04/11/14 — Daughtery talks fire taxes

View Archive

Daughtery talks fire taxes

By Steve Herring
Published in News on April 11, 2014 1:46 PM

Wayne County commissioners need to do a better job of justifying fire district tax rates to taxpayers instead of being merely a rubber stamp, Commissioner Joe Daughtery said this week.

"My concern is this, we approve these budgets that are recommended by the fire departments, and every year they just automatically approve whatever is brought in there," he said during commissioners' Tuesday planning retreat. "My concern is that at the end of last year, about April, May or June, there were huge budget amendments, in some cases, to certain fire departments that were unexpected revenues that come in -- not budgeted.

"When I asked about them, it is, 'Well, we have got to pass them along because they are revenues that have come in that are unbudgeted.'"

Daughtery said his problem is there has never been an analysis of those budget and tax rate needs.

For example, a department might ask for a 6.5 cent tax rate per $100 of property value to have a balanced budget, he said. However, the department might have an additional million dollars come in, but yet the department comes back the following year asking for the same tax rate.

In other words, there was never an adjustment of the tax rate, Daughtery said.

"It was just like it was excess money," he said. "When I asked about it, it was, 'You don't want to go there.' But I do think that we need to make sure that the tax rate established by a fire department is, in fact, what is necessary.

"If that fire department needed that million dollars, that is fine. But it ought to be in the budget. I am a little bit concerned in the methodology used on budgets for fire departments."

County Attorney Borden Parker told Daughtery that it is the county's tax, not the fire department's tax.

"The county sets the rate and collects and then has a contract with some entity to provide fire protection services," Parker said.

The county has the authority to include qualifications in the contracts, he said.

"I think what has happened here is that the fire departments believe that they are the ones establishing the tax rate for their department, and commissioners in the past have just automatically approved it," Daughtery said. "So it is, in de facto, being established by a board at these individual fire departments."

Commissioner John Bell said the county was lenient on the fire departments because they spend millions of dollars on fire trucks and equipment that the taxpayers of Wayne County do not have to come up with.

"We are talking about a few dollars and these are volunteers, people who volunteer to do a service for the county," Bell said. "We don't need to jump on them too hard."

"That is something we can look at in this coming year," Interim County Manager George Wood said. "I don't know that I would recommend that you look at all 28 (fire departments). But I would look at the ones that have that kind of interest. You should also look at the ones that had a serious loss."

"The seed has already been planted that probably the contracts in the county in the future are going to have more wording in them than they have now," Chairman Wayne Aycock said. "My background is fire service, but I agree that it probably needs to be some different language in the contracts. Our job is to be good stewards of the taxpayers' money."

Commissioner Ed Cromartie said he agreed with Daughtery in theory.

"It just deserved discussion later on," Aycock said.