The vote in complete, unofficial returns, was 718-305 against letting the district raise its current tax rate of three cents per $100 valuation to no more than the maximum 10-cent rate permitted under state law. Only about five percent of the 19,000 voters eligible to cast ballots in the election participated.
The district board had left open the possibility that it might raise the rate to less than 10 cents, but said state law required wording the ballot so that it would have the authority to impose that much.
The district either contracts with or provides funding to the county’s 17 mostly-volunteer fire departments, including departments in four incorporated cities. But only voters in rural areas and the city of East Mountain could vote in the election because no other incorporated cities in the county are in the district.
The departments receive budgeted amounts ranging from $9,000 to a maximum of $30,300 annually. The district, which undergoes an annual audit, indicated it would attempt to roughly equalize the reductions to each department.
District Board Chairman Bill Darby told a board meeting Monday night at the Gilmer Fire Department that the election results “were at the very least extremely disappointing” and that “We have a serious deficit situation that we will face this next fiscal year. We will not be able to solve it without some deep reductions from this year’s funding.”
During a question-and-answer period with the audience, in which Pritchett resident Porter Click asked why the district was facing a shortfall, Darby replied that “the mineral values are tanking. . .That’s pretty well the gist of it.”
The board chairman said a substantial amount of the district’s revenue came from such values. Earlier, board member Gaston (Bubba) DeBerry had said the Upshur County Appraisal District’s preliminary figures for the coming 2012-13 fiscal year show a “big drop” in taxable valuations.
Darby told the board it needed “a month to consider any options we may have available to us. Because this funding has never had any ‘fat’ to trim, the cuts we will have to make must not be based on any knee-jerk reactions.
“Everybody’s going to bleed about the same amount. That’s the only way to do that,” he added.
The proposed tax increase would have been the first in the 22-year history of the district, which was originally called the Upshur County Fire Prevention District. The proposition had drawn considerable interest in early voting as 428 persons cast ballots before Saturday.
Asked by Click how much holding the election cost the board, Darby said it exceeded $5,000, but that he didn’t yet have the total figure.
The board had argued the hike was needed because it had dipped into reserve funds for the past two years; potential grant funds have been greatly reduced; and the 3-cent rate was raising insufficient revenue to keep the departments operating.
But opponents, led by Tea Party activist (and candidate for Upshur County Republican Party chairman) Chuck Mears, complained the proposed increase was excessive; that communities would continue supporting their fire departments; and that the board could seek grants in lieu of a tax hike.
The board’s attorney, David Griffith, had said at an April 30 board meeting that the rate wouldn’t automatically be raised to the maximum 10-cent level if the proposition won approval, and Darby added that the board didn’t yet know what specific rate would be set.
Griffith and at least some board members were at the Upshur County Courthouse in Gilmer Saturday night when the returns were tabulated there. Asked for comment on the outcome by a representative of The Mirror there, Darby referred the reporter to Griffith, who said, “Thanks to everybody that supported it. We still feel like it’s necessary, but the public doesn’t. So be it.”
Mears, reached for comment by telephone Saturday evening, said “I’m glad that the voters and the taxpayers got their say” and that “there’s got to be a better way to get them (fire department) funds” than essentially putting liens on taxable property.
Mears said he had “mixed feelings” about the election because “I’m not happy that they (fire departments) are underfunded. . .I am not against supporting them.”
In fact, he had told the April 30 meeting he had aided the Pritchett Volunteer Fire Dept. and on Saturday night, he challenged Upshur Countians to come up with a way to help the county’s mostly-volunteer firefighters.
Board member DeBerry expressed appreciation at Monday night’s meeting to those who worked for the tax increase’s passage and said he respected the votes of those who opposed it.
He said perhaps the board could determine whether opponents “didn’t want their taxes raised,” or didn’t understand the ballot.
DeBerry, who is Ore City fire chief, also joined Darby in seeking to boost the morale of firefighters in the wake of the tax proposition’s defeat.
In his prepared statement, Darby had said, “Chiefs and firefighters, you may be thinking, ‘Why should I keep giving my time to be in the fire service? Why should I spend my own funds to continue training? Why should I put myself in danger when there seems to be few people that care?
“Only you can answer that. Please don’t rush your answer. Consider the high calling you volunteered for. Let’s maintain that high calling.”
DeBerry added, “Don’t take it personal. . .There was not a ‘no’ vote that was against the fire department.
“Let’s make do with what we’ve got. . .We can still grow,” said DeBerry, who said the board could hold another tax election as early as next November. Darby said that was “something to think about.”
Click told the board “I respect the job you do,” and said Pritchett residents were ready to add to their fire department’s “excellence.”
Related story: Will firemen let your house burn?