By DOTTY NIST
Walton County has set preliminary 2013-14 rates for fire protection assessments at $95 per dwelling unit for residential, 15 cents per square foot for commercial, 1 cent per square foot for industrial/warehouse, 15 cents per square foot for institutional, $11.30 per parcel for agricultural or vacant land on parcels ten acres or less, and for agricultural/vacant parcels over 10 acres, at $11.30 plus 17 cents per acre over 10 acres.
The preliminary rates were set through approval of a resolution at the Walton County Board of County Commissioners regular meeting at the Walton County Courthouse on May 28.
The resolution set preliminary rates for maximum fire assessments (beyond 2013-14) at $150 per dwelling unit for residential, 23 cents per square foot for commercial, 2 cent per square foot for industrial/warehouse, 23 cents per square foot for institutional, $17.85 per parcel for agricultural or vacant land on parcels 10 acres or less, and for agricultural/vacant parcels over 10 acres, $17.85 plus 27 cents per acre over 10 acres.
These assessments apply to Paxton and the unincorporated areas of Walton County, excluding the the Argyle and Liberty special fire protection districts. Also excluded is the area south of the bay and Intracoastal Waterway, which is served by the South Walton Fire District.
As presented by Heather Encinosa of county consultants Government Services Group (GSG), the resolution provided for hardship exemptions based on household size and income, with a family of four earning $17,650 or less per year to be eligible to apply for a hardship exemption under cetain conditions.
Rates for the county’s fire assessment program, which funds Walton County Fire Rescue, have remained the same since the program was set up in 1997, with $25 a year being assessed currently per dwelling unit. Study findings presented by GSG in April showed that, to pay the cost of providing the service, residences would need to be assessed at a rate of $379 per year. Program costs not paid through assessments have been funded through the general fund of the county budget. This has resulted in a double taxation situation for residents living in areas served by the independent special fire protection districts, since these districts are funded by property taxes paid by those residents.
In addition to increasing rates in all categories, the new preliminary rate schedule would put assessments in place for vacant land for the first time.
At the May 28 meeting, county commissioners voted to change the wording of the resolution to state that those currently being charged $25 per year for the fire assessment program would pay at least that amount, regardless of whether they might qualify for a hardship exemption.
Representing the Walton County Taxpayers Association, (WCTA) J.B. Hillard spoke in support of the resolution and asked that undeveloped land be assessed at the maximim rate allowed for that category. He stated the WCTA’s support for each property paying at least the $25 current rate.
On April 29, county staff had been directed to look at the county putting two Walton County Fire Rescue stations east and west of the Freeport city limits to serve the unincorporated areas currently covered by Freeport’s fire department. The plan would provide for the elimination of county payment to Freeport in return for fire protection in unincorporated areas surrounding Freeport. The payment has been provided through a contractual agreement.
Walton County has provided supplements to the DeFuniak Springs Fire Department, Liberty Fire District, and Argyle Fire District also but without a corresponding service agreement.
On behalf of the WCTA, Hillard spoke in support of the new Walton County Fire Rescue stations near Freeport , with the understanding that it might take two years to recapture the initial capital outlay.
“We support ending all subsidies, supplements and equipment loans or donations to all independent districts after one year,” Hillard told the commissioners. “This would give those districts one year to hold the necessary referendums to adjust their fire assessment to cover their total cost of operation,” he explained.
“These actions will strengthen the independent districts or cause them to combine into stronger organizations. While we understand the people’s reticence to change, the Walton County Taxpayers Association is committed to supporting those proposals that improve fire service for all,” Hillard added.
District 5 Commissioner Cindy Meadows made a motion that the BCC commit to progressively eliminate all subsidies for fire protection within the next eight years, so that by 2021 no money from the county’s general fund would be used to pay for fire protection. District 4 Commissioner Sara Comander seconded, but the motion failed to carry. District 3 Commissioner Bill Imfeld commented that he thought the commitment should be an open-ended one without specifying a year.
A 4 p.m. July 9 public hearing on the proposed assessment rate is scheduled at the South Walton Courthouse Annex, and notices are to be mailed to owners of assessable properties by June 18.