Fire district taxes must double to hit study’s staffing level
The property tax rate will need to double for the Murrells Inlet-Garden City Fire District to meet the staffing levels recommended in a consultant’s report. Raising the rate by 50 percent will allow the district to raise pay to boost hiring and retention of current employees, but won’t allow the district to keep up with growth, officials say.
“What we are looking at here is maintaining the status quo,” said Beth Ward, the treasurer of the district’s board. “We need to have more support from the community.”
The board faces an April deadline to call for a referendum to raise the district’s current tax rate in time for new revenue to show up in its 2024 budget. Murrells Inlet-Garden City Fire is a state special-purpose district that serves portions of Georgetown and Horry counties. Voters raised the tax rate to 14 mills in 2015. (A mill equals $1 of tax for every $1,000 of assessed value.)
A referendum in 2019 that would have raised the tax rate to 19 mills was defeated by a 2-1 margin. The fire district board plans to hold a special meeting next week to review the financial impact and get advice about the timing of the referendum.
“We need to move the cap,” Fire Chief J.R. Haney said. “I also want what passes.”
With an eye toward another referendum, the board commissioned a study of the district’s operations last year by McGrath Consulting. It showed that the district had to call for mutual aid more than 200 times over the course of a year because one of its three ambulances wasn’t available due to the volume of calls and overlapping calls. And it found the district doesn’t have the money to staff a fourth ambulance.
The study also found that turnover, which averages over 20 percent, is primarily a result of low pay, although it also found concerns about “supervisory practices.”
One recommendation was that the district hire a human resources officer along with sufficient staff to operate a fourth ambulance and to staff equipment responding to structure fires at the national standard.
To adopt the consultant’s recommendations would require adding 49 employees to the 52 positions in the current budget. That would require doubling the tax rate to 28 mills, Haney said.
While he supports that, he told the board this week that he also came up with a proposal for “the minimal amount we need.” That worked out to 21 mills.
At the lower rate, Haney figures the district will be able to add a fourth ambulance by 2025.
Contributing to the failure of the 2019 referendum was the discovery that an employee had embezzeled $84,000 and that the district hadn’t conducted a financial audit in several years. Those audits are current now, with one for 2022 expected later this spring.
“It failed the last time because we didn’t have adequate marketing,” Ward said.
Although the district staff can’t promote the referendum while on duty, Gene Connell, who chairs the board, said the six members can promote it as long as they don’t use public funds.
Board member Pat Walsh said it is important to understand the numbers and be able to explain those to the community. When it comes to tax rates and millage, “a lot of people don’t even know what it means,” he added.
At the end of the last fiscal year, data from the Georgetown County auditor’s office showed the average value of owner-occupied homes in Murrells Inlet was $283,512. Those are assessed at 4 percent. A 14-mill property tax equals $158.77.
A 21-mill tax would equal $238.15. A 28-mill tax would equal $317.53.
Walsh said the consultant’s recommendation should be the goal. He noted that the district had to take one ambulance out of service last month because of staff shortages. “We’re not going in the right direction,” he said.
Haney would like to see the board send a resolution next month to the election commissions in the two counties setting a referendum for early summer. If it passes, the counties would be able to include the new tax rate in the bills that are sent out in the fall. The revenue would be included in the district budget that starts Jan. 1.
Connell questioned whether the district will be able to schedule a vote by July.
Ward said that even if the board is advised that the timing isn’t good for a vote, it needs to start work now on the numbers and the marketing.
The other members agreed.