By DOTTY NIST
Members of the Walton County Taxpayers Association (WCTA) recently opened a conversation with the county commission about double taxation and other issues related to fire departments and districts in Walton County.
Bonnie McQuiston, WCTA president, and Bob Hudson, executive director for the organization, addressed the Walton County Board of County Commissioners (BCC) at the Oct. 25 regular meeting at the Walton County Courthouse in DeFuniak Springs.
McQuiston indicated that WCTA members had first raised some of the same issues with county officials a number of years ago. She added that the information that the WCTA would be providing was not aimed at disparaging any person or entity.
McQuiston said it had been her understanding that the BCC would be considering a subsidy to the Freeport Fire Department at the Oct. 25 meeting and that the matter would need to be resolved by Oct. 31.
District 4 Commissioner Sara Comander responded that she did not know anything about this matter needing to be finalized by that date. There was no such item on the BCC agenda.
McQuiston noted that a number of years ago, at the time when Walton County organized the north Walton fire district (Walton County Fire Rescue), the WCTA had addressed then-County Administrator Ronnie Bell about inequity with double taxation of people living south of the bay. Owners of property south of the bay fund Walton County Fire Rescue through their county taxes and also are taxed to support the South Walton Fire District, an independent district serving the area south of the bay.
McQuiston said the county’s response at that time to WCTA’s inquiries on this topic was that a five-year plan was being developed for Walton County Fire Rescue that would provide substantial funding for the entity. McQuiston said it was her understanding that the BCC had approved that plan but that it had never been implemented.
While noting that people in county municipalities that have their own fire departments, including DeFuniak Springs and Freeport, also pay taxes that are “rolled into” Walton County Fire Rescue, those municipalities receive services from Walton County Fire Rescue, while people living south of the bay do not, McQuiston commented.
She said that in a study conducted by Hudson, it was learned that someone owning a $200,000 property in south Walton County pays $114 a year that goes to Walton County Fire Rescue. With many homes south of the bay valued at more than $200,000, McQuiston noted, some owners are paying much more than that. One WCTA member, she said, pays $1,000 per year in taxes to support Walton County Fire Rescue.
“We would like you to find a way to fund Walton County Fire Rescue without taxing properties south of the bay,” McQuiston urged the commissioners.
She suggested utilizing a special assessment that she explained had been approved by the BCC in 1996 by resolution, excluding Freeport and DeFuniak Springs, that would fund fire protection north of the bay through a $200-per-residence annual fee and a per-square-foot fee for businesses. “You have that much in place; it has not been implemented,” McQuiston noted.
She also addressed inequities with fire departments north of the bay that had opted not to consolidate with Walton County Fire Rescue. Each of these fire departments is allocated funding from the county, McQuiston remarked, “with no consistency.”
“You dole out taxpayer money to these entities…without any consulting,” she charged.
McQuiston said it was her understanding that the Freeport Fire Department was requesting more funding than the county had provided in the past, even though Freeport has been getting two to three times the amount that DeFuniak Springs has received, while the DeFuniak area is “almost identical” in size with a greater population.
McQuiston told the commissioners that her point was that the WCTA wanted them to refrain from approving a funding agreement for the Freeport Fire Department without careful evaluation.
McQuiston’s final request was that the BCC consider refraining from making loans to the municipalities that may be difficult to pay back. She mentioned a loan the county had made to Freeport to provide for water and sewer service.
“You all need to resolve not to give out money without some kind of security,” she urged….
Read the full story in the November 3, 2011 edition of the Herald Breeze.