Bill to create separate fire district in West Florence expected to pass

State House Bill H.5225 sponsored by Florence and Darlington Counties Representative Phillip Lowe to create a separate fire district for West Florence is up for third and final reading in the Senate Thursday.

If it passes, Governor Nikki Haley will sign the bill and it will become law.

Lowe said he sponsored the bill after hundreds of residents called and emailed him about Florence County's new consolidated fire district.

It merged six districts into one.

West Florence residents were upset that the new district meant higher taxes for them.

"The citizens of West Florence want to maintain an independent and an autonomous fire department over there. And to do so we can have them elect five commissioners that can determine the needs of West Florence. And set mileage rates for those needs. And take care of the problems in the West Florence area. It would restore it to what it has been for the last 40 years. As an independent district instead of being consolidated. So that they would be able to have a board to that managed and ran it and managed it. And taxed people for an appropriate amount that would be needed within the West Florence Fire District..," said Rep. Lowe , District 60 (R).

He argued West Florence residents were being unfairly taxed under the consolidated district.

Lowe questioned why Florence County council didn't include municipal fire stations, instead of just rural county stations, in its consolidation district.

Lowe said,"If you want to talk about complete consolidation, I'm like you know let's get all the areas in the county together to work on a plan rather than select some primarily to try and bring them so you can get the taxes out of that district and pay for the needs for other parts of the district. So there's politics in anything and I don't think this is any district. But the citizens of West Florence are not happy about this plan that county council put together."

Florence County Council Chairman James Schofield believes the consolidation plan is fair all across the board.

He said it creates an equal tax rates throughout the county.

Schofield argued that West Florence paid lower tax rates due to its large tax base for years, while other communities paid higher rates.

Tax payers in West Florence now pay $32 on a $100,000 house while those in Johnsonville pay $161 on a home valued at $100,000.

Under the consolidated district, all tax payers will pay the same rates which equates to about $80 on a $100,000 home.

Schofield said, "County council is trying to tax people at the same mileage rate for the same service. Just like we do every other service and that's fair.To secede from this county and say we can get a better deal because we got a lot of people and a lot of valuation out here and we can do it cheaper. It's not right."

He added the bill hurts economic development in Florence County.

He said the language of the bill doesn't allow for the City of Florence to annex any more land in West Florence.

"No more annexation in West Florence. Go talk to the Mayor of the CIty of Florence and see if he likes that language in there. That's a problem. This bill is a problem. Bad for the city . Bad for the county. Bad for economic development," explained Schofield.

He said Rep. Lowe's bill doesn't allow for West Florence Fire to provide mutual aid to neighboring departments.

Schofield sites page four of the bill section 12 that says ' the equipment must be fully utilized for the protection and control of fire within the district.'

Schofield said that means firefighters can't take their equipment out of the West Florence coverage area.

Rep. Lowe said that's not true.

"They would still have their ability to help out with any of the other districts around or that are sitting around them, if they had some mutual problems. And they have a mutual aid clause that allows them to take care of the other areas around them too in the event that they needed more fire trucks to put out a fire. They can go to any other part of the county too," explained Rep. Lowe.

We'll let you know what happens with the bill.

There will be a community meeting to discuss the bill at West Florence Fire Department on Pine Needles Road at 6 Thursday night.