AIKEN - Delinquent property tax bills in Aiken County will include fire fees for the first time next year, an addition that could increase cash flow for strapped volunteer fire departments, officials said Wednesday.
It's a move some members of the county's 20 volunteer fire departments said would help ease their financial pain.
But it's only a Band-Aid for small departments whose fees aren't enough to buy needed fire and safety equipment even if all the residents they protect paid in full, said Mark Key, the president of the Aiken County Fire Chiefs Association.
"That's going to help, but it doesn't fix the problem," said Mr. Key, who advocates substituting the fire fees with a countywide fire tax.
Right now, the county collects fees owed to the departments but doesn't have the authority to penalize residents who don't pay. That's why the county never included the fees on delinquent tax bills, County Administrator Clay Killian said.
"We believe this will improve their collection and, at least for a period of time, could temporarily resolve their collection issues," Mr. Killian said.
Of the 44,556 fire bills the county mailed in 2003, just 29,055 property owners, or 65 percent, paid the fee before their bills became delinquent, Aiken County Treasurer Linda Sharpe said.
Of the remaining 13,501 residents who paid their taxes late, which doesn't include homes that were auctioned off or incorrectly coded, 2,000 people, or 15 percent of the late payers, also paid fire fees. That raises the countywide fire fee collection rate to 70 percent.
There were an additional 9,938 fire fee bills sent to collection agencies and 3,678 bills left sitting in county offices. Most of those bills belonged to residents who were late in paying their property taxes, Mrs. Sharpe said, though many of the bills have since been paid.
She said she did not know how many of this group also paid their fire fees.
The problem with past collections, said Capt. Kevin Lancaster of the Silver Bluff Volunteer Fire Department, is that residents have paid property taxes late and have never known they hadn't paid fire fees.
"It just all of sudden disappears and nobody knows about it," he said of the fee. "You go in there and they say, 'No, we just accept your taxes and you have to go to a different window.'"
Leaders including Mr. Key maintain that to solve the problem over the long term, payment for fire service must be added to property taxes. He was joined by other fire chiefs earlier this year who also recommended the move to the county council. The council has tabled the issue for now, largely because the conversion would be complicated and some fire chiefs balked at the idea because the county would have control over their operations.
"They would have to follow the guidelines like any other entity that's being funded with tax money," Councilwoman LaWana McKenzie said.
Gathering the fee through property taxes could also mean that residents in more populated fire districts help pay for fire protection in a smaller, less fortunate district.
That's something Phil Napier, the chief of the Graniteville-Vaucluse-Warrenville Volunteer Fire Department, doesn't want.
"If they're to put three mills on the Graniteville area, every penny needs to go to Graniteville," he said. "I'm a firm believer that where the taxes are paid, that's where the money needs to go."
Reach Josh Gelinas at (803) 648-1395, ext. 113 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Twenty volunteer fire departments in Aiken County run on fees paid by the residents they protect. The problem is not everyone pays.
Fees Mailed: 44,556
Fees Paid On Time: 29,055 (65 percent)
Source: Aiken County Treasurer's Office