After years of rising fire protection expenses, Walton County officials are looking for a way to protect residents as well as its tax dollars.
In a recent study of funding costs, Walton County Fire Rescue saw that only 5 percent of services were being funded through MSBU Fire Assessment Fee Structure, the other 95 has been coming out of ad valorem taxes.
"The whole reason to issue fire fees was so it could pay for itself," said Louis Svehla, public information officer for the Walton County Board of County Commissioners.
Since 1994 Walton County Fire has used an MSBU — Municipal Service Benefit Units — fire fees versus using ad valorem taxes to fund firefighters and fire stations. In an effort to fix the fee structure, the Walton County Board of County Commissioners will be holding a public hearing July 9, for the purpose of receiving public comment on the proposed fire fee assessments.
Currently, through the MSBU program, each residential property and commercial property pays a flat fee for the services the local fire department provides, instead of basing how much someone pays on the value of their property.
The BOC hired Government Services Group, Inc., a Tallahassee based company to assess the current program, after years of urging from the Walton County Taxpayers Association (WCTA). The survey showed the BOC that annual residential fire fees would need to be raised from its current $25 to $379 in order to be fully funded.
"But the board said there's no way," Svehla said.
Instead, the BOC is looking to raise the rate to $95 and to start charging owners of vacant land. Currently, vacant land is not charged.
Executive Director of WCTA, Robert Hudson, is in favor of the fee hike.
"We believe everyone should have fire protection, but if you're going to have it you should have to pay for it," he said.
Hudson notes that it costs approximately $7.3 million to fund fire protection in Walton County each year, $3 million of which is used for Emergency Medical Services. The funding costs have risen over the years, but the fees have stayed the same.
If the Walton County Fire Rescue is not fully funded through MSBU fees, it could be taking funding away from other county projects.
"You have to pay for it regardless," Svehla said. "Using ad valorem taxes [to pay fire fees] takes away funding from the purposes they were collected for, like paving roads."
When those ad valorum taxes are called upon, 93 percent comes from South Walton, Hudson said. The association is comprised of North and South Walton residents who are all in favor of a self-sufficient Walton County Fire Rescue, Hudson said.
"We do not believe people in South Walton should have to pay for fire protection in the other areas," he said. "I don't mind paying for fire protection, but I want to pay the guys that come to my house."
If the fee increase is not passed, everything would stay how it is, Svehla said. However, if funds can't be met, services could suffer.
"If anything else we need more fire stations," Svehla commented.
Commissioner Comander said she would rather not speculate on the fees and is waiting to hear what the community has to say July 9. Ultimately, however, the BOC has final say.
"I want the public to get a chance to express their point of view, and based on the calls and emails I have been getting and administration as well, we need to take the time to explore all scenarios," she said.