Information on Fire Study and Requested Changes to Fire Fee Legislation
The Brunswick County Board of Commissioners recently voted to request legislation to modify our county’s fire fee structure. Reports in the media and on social media have offered incomplete and inaccurate representations of the action we took. Below are the facts, which I hope will shed light on the action taken and the rationale behind it.
Brunswick County is one of two counties in the State of North Carolina that uses a fire fee system. Property owners pay a fee based on the size and nature of the property (i.e., residential, commercial, vacant lot, etc.). These fees provide funding to the fire department serving that property.
Brunswick County does not operate a county fire department. The county contracts with 16 non-profit volunteer fire departments in addition to six municipal fire departments (Southport, Bald Head Island, Oak Island, Shallotte, Ocean Isle Beach and Sunset Beach).
Fire fees generate $11 million annually. Currently, additional fire department funding comes from the County’s general fund balance (approximately $800,000), municipal fire funding (approximately $5.5 million), and fundraising or other sources of funds (approximately $800,000). The total funding spent on fire services in Brunswick County, including all these sources, is $18.1 million annually.
Each of 22 departments receives a minimum of $260,000 in funding annually to ensure a minimum funding amount for operations. For departments that do not raise $260,000 in funding from fire fees, additional funding is provided from Brunswick County’s general fund (the $800,000 mentioned above).
- Fire fees are allowed by General Statute (state legislation). Legislation for fire fees in Brunswick County was enacted in 1999 and updated in 2001 and in 2007. Currently, the fire fee rates are the maximum allowed by the statutes specific to Brunswick County.
- In the years since, many factors affecting fire departments have changed, including a reduction in the number of volunteers and an increase in the number of paid staff needed. Many departments also have or will soon have capital needs.
Action Taken to Meet Immediate Needs:
- To meet immediate funding needs, the Brunswick County Board of Commissioners has requested that the N.C. General Assembly modify the fire fee legislation to double the upper limit of fire fees for each type of property.
- Contrary to some media reports, we have NOT voted to increase any fees or taxes at this time. Increasing the upper limit would simply allow Commissioners the option to modify the fees, on a district-by-district basis and with input from Fire Fee District Committees from each fire district, to increase the fire fee amounts by an amount determined necessary for each district after consideration of each fire department’s needs.
To increase funding for fire departments (long-term), Brunswick County can:
- Increase fire fees, after the passing of legislation mentioned above.
- Seek to establish either a single County Fire and Rescue Service District or multiple Fire and Rescue Service Districts, with fire department funding under this model coming from a property tax instead of fire fees.
- Use additional general fund appropriations.
- Use of Article 46 (Quarter Cent Sales Tax, enacted after the passing of a voter referendum) to offset other methods mentioned.
Any changes to funding methods (whether by changing the fire fee amounts or enacting a Fire and Rescue Service District or Districts) would take effect at the beginning of the Fiscal Year (July 1).