Suwannee Democrat

August 23, 2013

Guest column: Why a non-ad valorem tax increase for fire services?

By James Sommers, Suwannee County Public Safety Director, Fire Chief
Suwannee Democrat

Live Oak — Recently, Suwannee County conducted a fire assessment study to research the cost of fire and EMS services provided by local government. The study evaluated the services throughout the unincorporated area of Suwannee County (Branford and Live Oak), including fire flow, budget and call data. The result of the study determined projected costs to provide these services in the future.

The last fire assessment study performed in our county was in 2005. At that time we had two paid stations and 11 volunteer fire departments. In eight years we have grown to five paid stations and maintain 11 volunteer fire departments with five Advanced Life Support ambulances.

We’ve grown to better serve this community and are working diligently to maintain our current insurance ratings and reduce response times.

Since 2009, when we were evaluated by the Insurance Services Office (ISO), we have been managing services to improve our rating. On a scale from 1 to 10, 1 being the best and 10 being the worst, Suwannee County currently has a protection classification rating of 6/9.

Now there are new standards as of June 2013. The new requirements will review staffing, emergency response times, communication center’s ability to answer calls, capacity of the apparatus, equipment on the apparatus, training, fire fighter safety, water supply (hydrant and pump flow testing) and a new section called community risk reduction (i.e.: Fire prevention, public fire safety education and fire investigation).  

Our apparatus and equipment are in jeopardy of not meeting the new standards. Failure to meet the standards may result in a change or loss of your ISO protection class and a possible increase to your insurance premiums. If the ISO standards are not met, this protection classification is subject to fall to the lowest point of 10. We can’t let that happen. That could make your homeowners insurance rates increase.

Based on discussions with local insurance agencies, your insurance costs would exceed the increase of the proposed fire assessment rate. For example, a frame home with a protection class of 9 would usually cost around $940 for a six month premium. If the rating dropped to 10, the six month premium would rise to $1,175 every six months. That’s an increase of $235 for six months; $470 for the year. The proposed fire assessment increase for the 2013-14 year is $75 which is a difference of $29.09 over the previous year.

Since the 2009 ISO inspection, we have added two more full time stations; one in Dowling Park and one in Wellborn. We increased the paid staffing by 12 (four per shift). By doing this we have only been able to maintain a 6/9 rating while cutting the response time from 19 minutes down to 10:52 minutes on average. 
In order for us to maintain our ISO rating, we must improve in many areas. Keeping the fire assessment at its current rate level, a level that has been unchanged since 2005, will prevent us from succeeding.

Since coming to this position, my team and I have been working diligently to tighten the belt of our office. One of my first tasks when I assumed office was to eliminate wasteful spending. We are working to get the most for the tax payer’s dollar. We have scrutinized all of our vendors, utilizing comparison pricing. We have been able to cut costs, reducing the excesses of monthly service fees and, in some cases, reducing bills to half-price. This has enabled us to put your hard-earned money to work in other areas of greater value and stretch our budget even further. Unfortunately, over the years our budget has never allotted for capital outlay to replace and/or upgrade apparatus equipment to keep up with the changes in the ISO criteria. We have reached the point that this equipment is no longer sufficient to meet the ISO ratings and requires considerable expense to keep the equipment operational.

It’s not just us. Other county fire departments plan to increase fire assessment rates also. A recent article published in a nearby county revealed Columbia County plans to more than double next year’s fire assessment tax for residential dwelling units if approved by their county commissioners. County officials are considering adopting $183 fire assessment rate for the physical year 2013-14. They plan to increase the county fire department budget from $4.3 million to $5.7 million. Keep in mind these proposed funds are for fire services only.

Suwannee County Fire/Rescue currently has a combined budget of $4.5 million for Fire and EMS service; the current Fire budget is $1,352,128. (This is paid & volunteer combined)

In conclusion, the fire assessment study revealed an increase in the current rate (a rate that has not been raised since 2005) would be needed to maintain our current level of services. The Suwannee County Board of County Commissioners is considering increasing the current assessment from $45.91 annually to a minimum of $75 for the 2013-14 fiscal year, with a proposed progression scale that cannot exceed $118 over the next five years. The proposed increase would fund approximately 63 percent of the fire budget, and would allow for future capital outlay expense to replace worn out equipment.

So where will the additional funds from the fire assessment go? I hope we can accomplish three things; improve the services offered by the department, reduce response times, and develop an independent budget that does not rely on the county's general fund for assistance. The revenue from the increased tax will help the department provide better services for the people by improving or replacing equipment, reducing preventative maintenance and repair costs, and eventually improving the ISO rating.