Towns to fight new fire tax

by Andrew Batten and Courtney Price

When the county budget rolls out later this year, people who live outside of town limits might pay the same amount in county taxes, but with two fewer essential services, said Cornelius Commissioner Jim Bensman.

The Mecklenburg Board of County Commissioners is considering creating separate fire districts for each municipality’s extra-territorial jurisdiction (ETJ), the area outside of town limits that is still under the authority of the town.

The county would then give the individual towns the authority to tax those districts, and transfer fire coverage responsibility to the towns.

“What we believe is really going on is the county, having budget problems, is trying to shift the responsibility to us,” Bensman said.

Cornelius-Lemley Fire and Rescue provides fire protection service to the outskirts of town, but the county foots the bill.

“The county is giving Cornelius $87,500 for fire service in the ETJ,” Bensman said. “We have asked the fire department to tell us what they believe it costs them to provide that coverage. Just because they’re getting the $87,000, it doesn’t mean they’re spending that. It could be more, it could be less.”

With the proposed districts, the county funding would stop.

Bensman also said that the problem for Cornelius is that its extra-territorial jurisdiction is very small – valued at about $70 million, compared to the $3.75 billion valuation for the town.

So in order to make up the $87,000 difference – assuming it’s not more than that – the town would have to either raise taxes a very small amount within the town’s limits or levy a much larger tax on the new district.

If Cornelius chose the first option, Bensman said, “The residents of the town would be subsidizing the ETJ. If we tax the ETJ, it will be a heavy burden.

“Having said that,” Bensman added, “the ETJ hasn’t been paying for it at all, ever.”

Bensman also said the Cornelius commissioners are in the process of writing a letter to the county to oppose the change entirely.

The idea of creating tax districts came after the county hired a consultant, Emergency Services Education and Consulting Group to assess the current volunteer fire department system. The consultant’s report recommended creating the districts.

Under the plan, the county would enact five fire districts – one each for Cornelius, Davidson, Huntersville, Mint Hill and Pineville. The districts would encompass the towns’ ETJ area, and each town can choose to have its corporate limits included in the district.

A sixth district would be created for Charlotte’s ETJ.

In the county, 18 volunteer fire departments provide fire and rescue services. In 2008, fire fighters responded to 4,980 incidents. Those departments also respond to approximately 200 structure fires annually.

But as residential development continues to spread into the most remote corners of the county, the volunteer fire departments’ ability to maintain service is becoming a challenge, the consultants report said.

But as the towns begin to fight this battle, another looms in distance.

Cornelius Police Chief Bence Hoyle is also preparing to deal with the county on possible police districts as well. The county contracts with Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department to provide services to the ETJs, as well as patrol on Lake Norman, but Bensman said, “The county is convinced that CMPD has been overcharging them for the service.”

So in order to provide better, closer service at a lower cost, the county is thinking about contracting with individual towns, packaging the new police district with the proposed new fire districts.

Breaking the contract will take legislative action, so it isn’t yet clear whether the police districts will happen.

But if it does, Bensman said, that will mean an even greater tax on Cornelius’ ETJ to cover the cost.

“We are looking into what it would cost the town to support the ETJ if the residents voluntarily asked to be annexed into the town,” Bensman. “We think it’s going to cost us more to do it than we’re going to get back in tax revenue.”

With Cornelius’ ETJ valuation of $70 million, Bensman said, the tax increase would have to be fairly high to cover the funding Cornelius currently receives from the county for fire service. He also said whatever tax rate the town sets for the ETJ has to be approved by the Board of County Commissioners, and he expects the board to set a cap.

“Because the ETJ is so small, there won’t be a way to raise money to do it,” he said.

“The fundamental thing is,” Bensman said, “the county is trying to push some of the things that they pay for down to the towns. The libraries were the first one, then the fire tax districts, and the next thing coming is the police coverage.”

For now, the town and its ETJ are just along for the ride.

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