County set to change fire districts for lower home insurance ratings

Published 4:42 pm Monday, May 17, 2010

Polk commissioners are expected to approve tonight revised fire districts that could better match coverage areas with the fire departments and lower home insurance ratings.
Commissioners also will consider tax rate increases for the Columbus and Sunny View fire districts.
The Harmon Field district and the fire departments of Tryon, Saluda, Green Creek and Mill Spring are requesting no tax increases for next fiscal year, which begins July 1.
Fire chiefs recommended the redistricting for several reasons, including more equitable distribution of tax revenue and the possibility of better ISO ratings for homeowners, which could mean lower insurance rates.
Once the redistricting is approved, the state fire marshals office will provide a better rating for homes within six miles of a fire station.
Currently, homeowners must be within five miles of a station to obtain the lower ISO rating and lower homeowners insurance rates that come with it.
The redistricting would mean an annual increase of $16,785 for the Green Creek Fire Department, a $7,675 increase for Tryon, a $6,792 decrease for Saluda and a $29,174 increase for Mill Spring.
Columbus is seeking an increase to offset lost revenue from the district change, while Sunny View is seeking more revenue to improve response.
Commissioners came to a consensus to add the 7/10 of a cent tax increase for Columbus, because the redistricting would result in an estimated loss of $31,613 for the department. The increase would bring the Columbus department about the same revenue as the current year.
Sunny View requested a one-cent increase, which would bring in much more than its estimated $4,335 loss from the redistricting. However, Sunny View Fire Chief Marty McGuinn explained the department could give residents a net savings with the increase by obtaining a lower ISO rating, which would save homeowners more than the tax increase would cost them.
A one cent tax increase for Sunny View would mean almost $50,000 more in revenue, which McGuinn says the department could use to obtain four more water sites in ponds and upgrade its current water sites to obtain an ISO rating of seven, compared to its current nine. That would mean an $88 annual savings in homeowners insurance, he said.
Commissioners werent convinced and decided to hold a public hearing to hear from Coopers Gap residents. The hearing is tentatively scheduled for June 1 at Sunny View School at 7 p.m.
“Every district in Polk County has some (public) water except Coopers Gap,” McGuinn told commissioners. “Were proposing to go from a nine to a seven (ISO rating), but to do that without county water, we have to get access to water within our district.”
McGuinn says his department has already spoken to the state fire marshals office to know what Sunny View needs to do to get the better rating. Commissioners discussed the issue for some time and suggested at one point that Sunny View get a quarter of a cent per year over four years.
Commissioners said the new ISO rating may not be obtained for three to four years while residents are paying the higher tax. Commissioners also expressed concern over the fact that once the water sources are obtained, the department would not need the tax increase any longer.
However, McGuinn said the increase will be needed into the future to maintain the new sites. He said some roads will have to be made to access ponds with fire trucks and those roads will have to be graveled and maintained annually. Also, McGuinn said, in order to maintain the lower ISO rating, the department will have to keep necessary equipment.
Commissioner Vice-Chair Ray Gasperson pointed out Wednesday that currently the Sunny View Fire and Rescue Department has the highest tax revenue and the second highest tax rate in the county. (See above chart). Going to seven cents per $100 of valuation would make Sunny View the highest department in both revenues and tax rate.
“I think Im going to have five other fire chiefs wanting to know why I did that,” Gasperson said.
McGuinn responded that most other departments also receive tax revenue from other sources, specifically in the towns of Columbus, Saluda and Tryon. Gasperson said Green Creek and Mill Spring only get county tax dollars.
Commissioner Renee McDermott responded that Coopers Gap residents are helping subsidize other parts of the county which are receiving county water while Coopers Gap residents see no direct return on those tax dollars.
McDermott said the Sunny View department is only asking to pay for getting water for fire protection themselves.
She said the county thought it was important to get fire hydrants in other parts of the county for better fire protection and the same importance should be placed on better fire protection for Coopers Gap residents.
Polk County Manager Ryan Whitson asked McGuinn to come up with a maintenance plan prior to the June 1 meeting, estimating how much it will cost his department to maintain its water sites.
Commissioners will officially set the public hearing during its meeting tonight that begins at 7 p.m. Commissioners are also scheduled to approve the new fire districts tonight.
Commissioners met last Wednesday and held a public hearing on changing the fire districts. No comments were made by the public.

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