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Safety: Decade of tax caps leaves Midway struggling to compete
By Charles Swenson
Four years after Georgetown County adopted a plan that raised pay for emergency workers, Midway Fire and Rescue is back where it started, serving as a training ground for other departments that pay higher salaries. “We can’t hire the people we need,” said Dick Faulk, a member of the Midway advisory board. “It’s not that the community doesn’t want to pay for it.”
The problem is that the community can’t pay for it.
A law passed in 2006 known as Act 388 put a cap on the amount of money local governments can raise through property taxes. The law also limited the increase in property values that can occur during the five-year reassessment cycles to 15 percent. The same law also exempted owner-occupied homes from paying property tax for school operations, replacing that revenue with a 1-cent sales tax.
Midway’s problem is compounded because it is a high-growth tax district within a low-growth county. Act 388 ties annual property tax increases to population growth and increases in the consumer price index. The formula allowed Georgetown County to raise taxes this year 1.5 percent.
A pay freeze implemented during the Great Recession put Midway firefighters 20 percent behind their peers in other departments. Four years of pay increases since then helped close the gap, but didn’t eliminate it. And this year, county officials had to take a sharp pencil to the budget just to meet the final installment of the increase.
“This is the last year of the raise the county put in. Everybody around us is raising salaries,” Faulk said. He and other Midway board members met this week with state Sen. Stephen Goldfinch and Rep. Lee Hewitt to ask for help. “There’s got to be a workaround, but I don’t know anybody who’s working around it,” Fire Chief Doug Eggiman said.
Goldfinch knows the answer to Act 388. “It needs to be repealed,” he said. That isn’t likely to happen. It isn’t that the law has supporters, but rather that no one wants to be seen raising taxes, he added. “You never hear people coming to the defense of it,” Hewitt said. Two bills introduced in the House this year would remove the tax caps. Both were sent to committee.
There was an effort to amend Act 388 to exempt emergency services when their insurance ratings were at risk, Eggiman recalled. But it kept getting watered down and didn’t pass.
That rating, the ISO rating, determines how much property owners pay for fire insurance. Midway is currently Class 2. It hopes to get to Class 1, but its ability to improve fire protection is limited by its ability to hire and retain employees. Midway could build a new fire station in the Prince George area, “but our budget won’t staff it,” Eggiman said.
Midway has 64 full-time employees of whom 57 are “on the line.” It staffs two of its four ambulances to run 24/7. It needs to do the same with a third, but that would mean taking staff from its engine companies. “We’ve been doing more with less before it was cool,” Eggiman said. Now, it can no longer grow with a district whose year-round population is 22,000 and that has a peak summer population closer to 50,000. “The call volume is going to have a steady increase every year,” he said.
This year, Midway is on track to log about 4,000 calls. It had 3,600 last year.
What is particularly frustrating to the Midway board is that the training that makes its staff effective also makes them attractive to other departments, said Jim Mueller, a Midway board member who spent 30 years in the fire service in New Jersey. “We didn’t do the training they do down here,” he said. “To lose those people, it just hurts.”
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