Polk majority supports proposed fire tax increase for Columbus

Published 1:27 pm Wednesday, June 6, 2012

A majority of Polk commissioners said they are in favor of granting the Columbus Fire Department its requested one-cent increase for next year’s budget.
Commissioners met Monday, June 4 at the Saluda School auditorium and held a budget workshop prior to the meeting.
Commissioner chair Ray Gasperson, vice-chair Renée McDermott and Cindy Walker agreed to include the increase in the budget for fiscal year 2012-13, while commissioners Ted Owens and Tom Pack were against the increase. Owens and Pack said they wanted the county to take money out of its budget to pay for the extra revenue rather than approve a tax increase.
The Mill Spring Fire Department also requested a one-cent increase and the Polk County Rescue Squad requested to be given ¼ of a penny instead of its current 1/3 of a penny distribution, but Gasperson, McDermott and Walker said they are not in favor of granting those requests at this time.
The Columbus Fire Department plans to use the extra tax revenue to hire three full-time employees to staff the department 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
McDermott said she favored granting Columbus its request because the department has done an audit every year so taxpayers know how the department spends its money.
“They all made good presentations,” McDermott said, “but Columbus has had an annual audit forever. I think it’s important whenever you’re asking taxpayers to give additional funding there be audits so taxpayers can be assured the money is being spent properly.”
She added she in no way believes the departments not receiving audits are not spending their money properly. She said she simply feels annual audits are needed, especially when asking for additional funding.
Owens and Pack said they were in favor of granting all the departments’ requests, but wanted to do so by taking the money from the county’s general fund.
“I believe the county should not further burden the taxpayers of Polk County as we have ample revenue to cover the request of all three departments without having to increase anyone’s taxes,” said Pack.
Pack recommended Monday that the county use fund balance to pay for capital outlay next year and fund the three department’s requests from the general fund.
Pack said in the last six years the county’s revenues have exceeded the initially approved budget expenditures by approximately $9,500,000 with commissioners amending the budgets to spend all the excess revenue plus an additional $2,000,000 from the county’s savings during that same time period.
“It is a matter of priorities, not a lack of revenue,” said Pack. “I believe we can make the special appropriations for several years before we need to consider raising anyone’s taxes. The total to fund the request of all three departments is around $115,000.”
Pack also said that although the Mill Spring Fire Department had not had an audit since 2006, the county’s contract with the Mill Spring Fire Department states the county is responsible for the audit.
McDermott said she disagrees with Owens’ and Pack’s suggestion of being able to pay for the requests out of the county’s budget. She said the county has many expensive capital projects in its future.
She said each fire district is its own taxing district and that’s a big hint that the state wants them to be self-sufficient.
“It’s not right to ask taxpayers in Tryon, Green Creek, Sunny View or Saluda to pay for the funding needs of Mill Spring or Columbus,” McDermott said. “They need to be funded out of their own district.”
If commissioners officially approve the request, the Columbus Fire Tax will increase from four cents per $100 of property valuation to five cents per $100 of valuation.
Commissioners will hold a special public hearing on Monday, June 11 at 7 p.m. to hear comments on the budget and plan to adopt the new budget during a regular meeting scheduled for Monday, June 18. The new budget year begins July 1.

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