County revokes fire district’s budget authority over requested property tax hike

L-R: Washington County Commission members Zachary Renstrom, Victor Iverson and Dean Cox, St. George, Utah, Dec. 5, 2017 | Photo by Mori Kessler, St. George News

ST. GEORGE — The Washington County Commission voted Tuesday to revoke the ability of the governing board of the Rockville-Springdale Fire Protection District to control its budget – at least for now.

The County Commission had originally considered passing a resolution dissolving the board and becoming the fire district’s governing board instead. This potential action came about due to the commission’s concern over the 2018 budget the fire district board had submitted for approval.

Within the proposed $1.3 million budget is a request for a substantial hike to the portion of property tax allotted to the fire district – as well as an increase in associated fees – thereby increasing the overall property tax.

I can’t see myself voting for this type of an increase,” County Commissioner Dean Cox said. His sentiment was shared by fellow commissioners Zachary Renstrom and Victor Iverson.

Each commissioner said they had received various emails for and against the potential tax and fee increases and also expressed concerns over how the fire district was being managed and whether or not some potential changes weren’t in order.

Image courtesty of the Rockville-Springdalw Fire Protection District, St. George News

The Rockville-Springdale Fire Protection District board proposed an increase in the property tax rate allotted to the district go from .000195 to .000705, which equates to a 261.5 percent jump.

According to figures provided to the public in a notice for public hearing held in Springdale last week, an example of the tax on a residence valued at $356,967 would go from $38.28 per year to 138.28.

A business valued at the same amount would see its annual rate jump from $69.61 to $251.54.

Standby fees associated with the fire district would also increase by an additional 74 percent, something Cox said could be as high as $300 for some residents.

The tax and fee increases, according to a public notice for last week’s meeting, would raise wages for emergency personnel employed by the district to $16.

Luci Francis, chair of the fire district board, said those wages had been less than $10 at the start of the year and were subsequently raised across the board to $13 in July. However, doing this caused the fire district to dip into its financial reserves, she said.

The raise in pay was seen as a way to help retain emergency personnel employed by the fire district, Francis said.

Like other fire departments, the Rockville-Springdale Fire Protection District has experienced the loss of firefighters and medics to better-paying agencies.

Downtown Springdale traffic, Springdale, Utah, July 20, 2016 | Photo by Reuben Wadsworth, St. George News

Currently the fire district has four paid emergency personnel – two medics and two firefighters – on call on a 24-hour basis. The district also employs a full-time fire chief, part-time clerk, fire marshal, fire captain, EMS captain and between 20-30 firefighter and EMS personnel, according to its website.

Besides wages, the proposed rate increases were also seen as a way to help fund the fire district’s ability to adequately respond to the growing amount of tourists visiting the area, Francis said.

The people of Springdale and Rockville deserve firefighters that are on duty and not on call, both Iverson and Cox said. They also suggested that the fire district may do better to have two staff on duty who were cross-trained as firefighters and medics instead of four on-call individuals.

Overall, around 800 residents between Rockville and Springdale, along with business owners, support the fire district that also covers the gateway to Zion National Park.

Zion was the fifth most-visited national park in the country in 2016, with over 4 million visitors, numbers that have already been surpassed as of October 2017.

In this file photo, Rockville-Springdale Fire Protection District responds to a single-vehicle rollover on SR-9 early Friday morning, Rockville, Utah, July 7, 2017 | Photo by Ron Chaffin, St. George News

On any given day there can be between 4,000-16,000 people passing through to visit Zion, Francis said.

Even though Iverson said the fire district is “carrying a heavy burden up there,” the commissioners maintained their reservations about any tax and fee increases.

Cox said he wondered if the fire district wasn’t being as efficient as it could be due to the budget amount it requested.

While the commission meeting was not a public hearing, the commissioners still wanted to hear from those who had come to the see the outcome of their pending resolution.

Ballard, the district fire chief, told the commissioners they had been misinformed on matters related to the district, including the perception the fire district didn’t “play well” with other agencies. Renstrom said he had been told the fire district had refused help from the Hurricane Valley Fire District on a particular occasion, but Ballard said he wasn’t aware of the incident, adding he wished the commission had come to him with its concerns on this and other matters rather than talking to other sources.

An ambulance from Rockville/Springdale Fire District rushes to the hospital after a teenage girl was injured in a rock slide at Zion National Park, Springdale, Utah, July 3, 2017 | Photo by Joseph Witham, St. George News

One man who addressed the commission said he owned a number of businesses within the fire district and would be “hard hit” if the tax increase was approved. While he supports the fire district, he didn’t believe a tax hike would fix anything.

“This raise in taxes isn’t going to fix our problem,” the man said.

The fire district’s governing board had gone with the highest tax rate allowed under the law as a starting point that the commission and board could hash out, Francis said.

“We had hoped for better communication with you,” she told the commission. “We’ve not a business. We’re not here to make a profit; we’re here to save lives. … I do feel like a child here asking for guidance. … We need your help.”

Special service districts like the fire protection district were referred to as “a child of the county” by the commissioners during the meeting. The Rockville-Springdale Fire Protection District itself was created by the county in 1983.

Cox, who was not exactly keen on the idea of seeing the fire district board dissolved, said he wanted to give the board until the commission’s Dec. 19 meeting to come up with a better budget before passing any resolution.

However, state law requires the fire district pass a budget before year’s end, Renstrom said, adding he wasn’t comfortable with leaving the situation unchanged for the next two weeks.

I think we need to take some action today,” Iverson added.

The commission ultimately voted 2-1 on an amended resolution to remove the fire district board’s budget authority for the time being. Iverson and Renstrom voted for the resolution while Cox opposed it.

Between now and the next Dec. 19 meeting, the commission and board will meet to further discuss the situation in hopes of reaching a palatable solution.

Email: mkessler@stgnews.com

Twitter: @MoriKessler

Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2017, all rights reserved.

 

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2 Comments

  • Proud Rebel December 6, 2017 at 10:19 am

    Since this fire district is directly impacted by the huge increase in tourism to Zion National Park, it looks to me like some of there funding should come from the park itself.

  • utahdiablo December 7, 2017 at 3:25 pm

    Make the endless barrage of tourits coming here pay for the fire district though a hotel tax….problem solved, your welcome

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