Horry County officials are worried about getting burned by a proposed property tax increase to help the ailing fire rescue service.
The County Council passed first reading Friday of its proposed $136.6 million budget for the upcoming 2014 fiscal year, slightly higher than the current $131 million budget
Still, the biggest budget issue wasn’t included in that amount when members voted.
Council members want to take a serious look at that proposed fire fund and its 3.5 millage tax increase before formally adopting the budget on third reading before June 30, the end of the current fiscal year. A workshop will be scheduled in May following the council’s regularly scheduled meeting on May 7.
The underlying message that came out of day two of the spring budget retreat Friday was they want to public to be as informed about this proposed millage hike as possible.
“Everyone here is scared to death of the words ‘tax increase,’” Councilman Jody Prince said.
The millage increase dedicates two mills toward future staffing and operational needs for Horry County Fire Rescue, according to the proposed fire fund. The remaining 1.5 mills would be for replacing older fire equipment.
As to how much property owners would have to pay, the 3.5 mills equals $14 per $100,000 of the assessed value of one’s property. The fire fund only applies to those in unincorporated parts of Horry County, while residents in places like Myrtle Beach and Conway wouldn’t be impacted.
“There is no magic bullet solution. And I’m glad it’s you all that have to decide this and not me,” said Horry County Fire Chief Fred Crosby, who has been in the job for five months.
The department is at a crossroads and the county needs to decide what it wants its fire service to be, said Crosby, who admitted being nervous. .
Horry County Fire Rescue has been dealing with staffing issues and dated equipment for some time.
Crosby said the department faced a 30 percent turnover rate when he came on the job.
As of Nov. 15, 2012, Horry County Fire Rescue had only 192 volunteer firefighters, Crosby said. The number of volunteers has hovered around 200 for more than a year, while career firefighters number 300. The amount of training involved coupled with a tough economy are two reasons cited for the department’s difficulty in retaining volunteers.
A lack of sufficient manpower can mean not enough resources for responding to calls.
Engines now are staffed by two people instead of three or four, and some county stations like Iron Springs, Lees Landing and Pitch Landings spent part of 2012 closed, Crosby added.
Then there’s the department’s fleet of engines. Crosby said 13 of its pumpers are 23 years old and eight are running as first-out engines. The remaining five are the only reserve fleet available and may be assigned anywhere at anytime.
If the council does nothing, fire rescue would have to cut 18 positions currently funded through a federal grant that is set to expire this year, Crosby said.
Stations in the county would also have to be shut down in order to make do with the funding cut.
With the 3.5 millage increase, Crosby said fire rescue could address its equipment issues and stabilize the fire fund for the long term.
He added it also would maintain the county-wide ISO rating of five, which would keep homeowners’ insurance rates from going up.
Councilman Al Allen said what many of the council were feeling - serious discussions have to happen over the next several weeks. Otherwise, he added, in six to 12 months they’re going to be, “in the bottom of the pickle barrel on this.”
“If we do nothing, we’re going to have to go backwards. If we do nothing, we’re going to lose 18 firefighters,” said Councilman Bob Grabowski.