By DOTTY NIST
County commissioners recently took on a complicated topic, that of fire protection in Walton County and how those services are funded. This was at an April 29 special meeting at the Walton County Courthouse in DeFuniak Springs.
In August 2012, the Walton County Board of County Commissioners (BCC) had tasked consultants Government Services Group (GSG) and Nabors Giblin & Nickerson with studying the county’s fire assessment program and providing recommendations for an update of the program. Their task included study of other entities providing fire protection throughout the county and their funding sources. Camille Tharpe of GSG addressed the commissioners at the April 29 meeting with findings and options for updating the program.
The fire assessment program furnishes funding for Walton County Fire Rescue, which provides fire protection and emergency medical services (EMS) in Paxton, and in the unincorporated areas north of the bay, for areas other than those covered by Freeport, DeFuniak Springs, and the Argyle and Liberty special fire protection districts.
Tharpe told the commissioners that Walton County had implemented assessments for fire services in the 1997-98 fiscal year. In the 2003-04 fiscal year, she explained, the assessment program was updated, relying on better data that had been obtained by the county, and new assessment categories were created. In 2007-08, Tharpe recalled, the BCC again asked consultants for an update of the program but opted not to move forward with that update.
In contrast with funding from the county’s general fund, assessments are a method of funding services that are provided to a specific area which benefits from those services and from which payment going toward those services is assessed.
Tharpe explained requirements for assessments, which include that it provide a “special benefit” to property and that it be apportioned in a fair and reasonable manner. She said the most widely adopted method for apportionment of assessments is “historical demand” or the number of initial calls for service. In this methology, Tharpe noted, one rate is used for single-family structures regardless of size.
Assessment is allowed for funding of fire services but not EMS services, Tharpe explained, and calls for EMS service were factored out in evaluating demand.
Tharpe gave an overview of the five other entities other than Walton County Fire Rescue that provide fire protection services to various areas of the county, not including Eglin Air Force Base, which was not included in the study.
South Walton Fire District (SWFD) is an independent special fire district, composed of the area south of the bay and Intracoastal Waterway, which is empowered to levy up to 1 mill in ad valorem taxes on properties within the district. The SWFD is provider for both fire protection and EMS services in south Walton County. In the current fiscal year, the county furnished the SWFD with $652,287 toward funding for EMS services
Liberty Fire District is an independent special fire control district which levies non-ad valorem special assessments in its service area. Annually, $25 is levied for residential structures and $82 for business structures. Walton County provided this fire district with a supplement of $94,804 in the current fiscal year.
Argyle Fire District is an independent special fire control district which levies non-ad valorem special assessments in its service area. Annually, $25 is levied for residential parcels. The levy for nonresidential structures is $50 per year for up to 5,000 square feet and $100 per year for over 5,000 square feet. Walton County provided this fire district with a supplement of $72,265 for the current fiscal year.
The DeFuniak Springs Fire Department is funded by the city. This fire department received a $85,279 supplement from the county in the current fiscal year.
The Freeport Fire Department is funded by the city of Freeport. This fire department has a contractual agreement with the county to provide service for part of the county’s unincorporated area in the vicinity of Freeport. The county provided this fire department with $275,000 during the current fiscal year.
Returning to the topic of assessments for Walton County Fire Rescue, Tharpe told the commissioners that $4,809,625 was the total amount that the county could legally assess for fire services, based on its adopted 2012-13 fiscal year budget. She provided recommendations for apportionment of that $4.8+ million among five categories, including residential, industrial/warehouse, commercial, land, and institutional.
The recommended apportionments were based on the percentage of demand for services for each category. Because residential properties had had the highest historical demand for services (74.77 percent of service demand), the apportionment was set up so that the residential category would generate 74.77 percent of the cost of services. Other percentages were 12.23 percent for land, 6.77 percent for institutional, 4.92 percent for commercial, and 0.31 percent for industrial/warehouse.
Recommended parcel apportionment of assessments was based on per dwelling unit for residential and square footage for commercial, industrial/warehouse, and institutional. For land, it was based on per parcel for up to 160 acres and, for larger properties, per parcel plus per acre for each acre over 640.
Tharpe provided the commissioners with a table of scenarios for assessments in all categories, ranging from one that would produce net revenue equal to 6.5 percent of the total assessable budget to one that would produce revenue equal to the entire total amount the county could legally assess. Yearly residential rates ranged from $25 for the 6.5-percent option to $379 for the 100-percent option.
Among Tharpe’s recommendations were maintaining exemptions for government properties and churches and making a hardship exemption available.
She noted that Paxton would need to consent to any changes in the assessment program.
The commissioners considered initially opting for the 25-percent assessment rate, which would result in a $95 annual rate for residential properties and would produce net revenue of approximately $1.1 million. There was a motion to that effect by District 3 Commissioner Bill Imfeld for discussion.
South Walton County resident Mary Nielson urged for approval of a higher assessment rate. She commented that, for almost a decade, people living south of the bay had paid the South Walton Fire District for their own fire protection and also paid through their ad valorem taxes to support Walton County Fire Rescue–enabling the low $25 per residential structure assessment to be maintained for properties north of the bay served by Walton County Fire Rescue. “I think you need to go to the 50-percent rate now,” she told the commissioners.
Speaking on behalf of Walton County Taxpayers Association (WCTA) President Don Riley, WCTA Executive Director Bob Hudson said, “This issue has been a three-year quest for the Walton County Taxpayers Association.”
Hudson continued that it was his belief that all county residents should have fire protection—but that he also believed that there had been inequity in funding of fire services.
He suggested assessing large properties per acre based on total acreage.
Hudson encouraged the commissioners to set a goal of gradually increasing the assessment percentage rather than continuing to “buy down” assessment value by funding most of Walton County Fire Rescue’s budget through the county’s general fund.
Imfeld responded that part of his motion was to “phase in” fire assessment increases, increasing them each year until parity is achieved.
DeFuniak Springs resident J.B. Hillard commented that he did not think anyone would deny that there are inequities with funding of fire protection. That being said, Hillard wondered if taxpayers north of the bay would see the changes being proposed as a benefit to them and whether they would support those changes.
Imfeld responded that, by raising the assessment rate, it could be possible to reduce the ad valorem tax rate.
District 1 Commissioner Bill Chapman said of the Liberty and Argyle independent fire districts, “They have been dependent on the county for many years.” He proposed that those districts go to their voters to see if they would approve assessments in line with what the county would be adopting. Chapman suggested that if they did not, the county consider cutting out supplements to those fire districts. Tharpe stated that adoption by those fire districts of assessments equal to those proposed for the county would result in more revenue for them than what they are currently receiving with the supplements from the county included.
Imfeld was in agreement, saying that the two fire districts should be given a year to decide, with the message that they could become self-sufficient by adopting what the county does. He also proposed having staff look at the county putting two Walton County Fire Rescue stations located east and west of the Freeport city limits to serve the unincorporated areas currently covered by Freeport’s fire department—and elimination of county payment to Freeport for fire protection. Imfeld said this plan would also provide for municipal service benefit unit (MSBU) revenues now going to Freeport in connection with service to those unincorporated areas, to come to the county.
Following more discussion, Imfeld withdrew his earlier motion and also suggested that staff look at a new assessment rate of between 25 and 39.5 percent and come back with a recommendation for the commissioners. This direction was agreed to and the meeting was concluded shortly.
The date by which the county will be required to adopt a preliminary assessment rate resolution for Walton County Fire Rescue is May 28. A July 9 public hearing on the assessment rate is to be held, and notices of the assessment are to be mailed to affected property owners.
The April 29 special meeting was videotaped and is available for viewing in its entirety on line at www.NeighborVision.com.