County Fire Commission funding presents challenges

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By Stan Welch
The Anderson County delegation recently voted to approve a referendum question that could increase the millage for the county controlled fire departments by four mills. State Representative Anne Thayer was one of three delegation members who voted against the request for a referendum. In a recent interview, Thayer clarified the reasons for her vote. ( The final vote by delegation member appears at the end of this article.)
“Clearly, I do not stand in opposition to our firefighters. Their service and sacrifice are deeply valued by every citizen of Anderson County, including me. My problem wasn’t with the request, or the increased millage. My problem was with the process, and the fact that I felt the delegation was somewhat blindsided,” said Thayer.
The root problem lies in the funding challenges faced by the county’s thirty one fire departments. The Commission, which administers the revenues generated by the current six mill levy, is seeking support for a four mill increase. Those revenues support an annual budget of some $3.3 million. The additional millage, if approved, would result in approximately $2.4 million in additional revenues annually. (Editor’s note: The previous story misstated the total request as $600,000. That amount is, in fact the value of one mill. The commission is seeking four mills increase.)
The Council does not appoint the Fire Commission and has no oversight authority over them. The commission is appointed by the county’s legislative delegation. In 2018, the Commission sought the County Council’s support for the additional millage. In response to the commission’s request for its support, the county council chose to seek an opinion from the Attorney General as to their role and or responsibility in the situation. Thayer stated that she had reviewed the minutes of the pertinent delegation meeting, and the commissioners stated that there was no particular urgency. During the interim, the issue lost momentum, and the fire commission withdrew its request for support.
The Commissioners raised the question again recently. Their case is a strong one in light of the fact that the levy has not been increased by the General Assembly since the Fire Commission was established in 1987. With more than nine hundred volunteers, making it one of the nation’s largest volunteer systems, 27 fire districts and 31 fire stations to support, funding is a constant challenge.
The question was relegated to a referendum. The delegation agreed to put the question to the voters. But there was a snag. The delegation assumed that the referendum would be added to the ballot at the next general election. The fire commission, running short on patience, is seeking a stand alone referendum.
That would cost the county approximately ninety thousand dollars to conduct. That cost reportedly startled the delegation, and led to the meeting in Columbia. The delegation chose to seek another opinion from the attorney general to reinforce whether the county council or legislative delegation has authority in the matter.
Delegation chairman West Cox concedes that the immediate nature of the request gave several delegation members heartburn, including himself; but he questioned the estimated cost of the referendum. “I think that estimate was based on a broader referendum during a general election. That would involve additional voting machines, as well as personnel to man the polls. I think the price, while obviously higher than waiting, will be less than the estimate.”
Cox also pointed out that there are two somewhat contradictory statutes related to the matter. An old state law gives special purpose district authorities, such as the fire commission, the ability to pursue such a referendum on their own, simply by approaching the election commission. But when former Rep. Ronnie Townsend was in office, a local law was passed expanding the delegation’s responsibilities, to include referendum approval. “That law is still on the books, so to comply, we voted on the referendum request,” said Cox.
Cox continued to explain that Act 388, the tax reform measure that impacts the allowed size of a tax increase in any given year, applies here as well. “Our best estimate is that the commission, assuming the millage increase is approved, will receive approximately .9 mills the first year, with subsequent allocations in the following years. So it will take several years to realize the full increase in funding,” said Cox.
Thayer objected during the delegation’s debate over the matter, saying that a general election had just taken place. She also told the Journal that she received phone calls from eight or ten fire chiefs who offered no support for the requested increase. “I heard nothing at all from Williamston or from the departments in the city of Anderson. The first expressions of support I heard were from the Piercetown and Three and Twenty departments, and that was after the vote.” Not all fire departments in the county are under the control or supervision of the fire commission, and so would not benefit from such an increase.
Reinforcing her opinion that the delegation was blindsided by the request, she pointed out that the delegation met on the Tuesday before the fire commission’s meeting on Thursday. “I couldn’t understand the hurry,” said Thayer. “They hadn’t even had their meeting yet and here we were voting on the proposal. It just seemed to me that the process was confused and hurried. Those were my main objections. I certainly support our firefighters in every way, but the rush and the high cost of a referendum held on a Friday in an off year just seemed unnecessary to me.”
The referendum was approved by a vote of 5 to 3. In favor were Cox, Rep. Jay West, Sen. Mike Gambrell, Rep. Gagnon and Rep. Brian White. Joining Thayer in opposition were Sen. Richard Cash and Rep. Jonathon Hill.