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Fire Protection District opt out meeting

Over 50 people attended the town hall meeting Tuesday, July 20, concerning the proposed tax opt out for the Philip Fire Protection District.

First, a presentation was given by Curt Arthur, the chairman of the Fire Protection District board. Using an overhead projector, he described the last few year's worth of the Philip Volunteer Fire Department's financial expenditures, income and foregone necessities for yearly operations. The cost of new equipment and trucks will not be included in the district's request for opt out taxes of $75,000 for each of the next three years. Those items, as well as the fundraising projects of the annual firemen's dance, annual demolition derby and Fourth of July fireworks display, will continue to come from donations rather than taxes.

The department currently has five first response fire trucks, two pumper trucks, one tender water truck, one rescue truck and one Suburban that is used for first response. In reply to letters sent annually requesting donations, the fire department received in 2008 $26,689, in 2009 $20,586, and so far in 2010 $13,200. In response to bills for actual fire calls, the department records for 2007 show $39,621 billed and only $4,130 received. For 2008, of $9,693 billed, only $3,931 was received. In 2009, of $8,680 billed, only $4,659 was received. So far in 2010, of $7,000 billed, nothing has been received.

With the recent structure fires, the fire department has had to admit that its self contained breathing apparatis units are in need of repair or replacement. Each SCBA unit costs approximately $5,000. The cascade system for refilling the units is also in need of maintanence. If a large fire demanded for every single volunteer to be suited up and fighting the fire, not enough full bunker gear outfits are in good condition and available. One set of bunker gear of pants, jackets, boots, gloves, mask and helmet costs approximately $2,000.

The audience was cordial, but concerned, as individuals asked questions, suggested options and gave opinions. One suggestion made was to raise city sales taxes, instead of initiating a property tax. The city cannot raise its sales taxes any further unless it initiates a Bed, Board and Booze tax, and that tax has very specific expenditures for which it can be used. Many agriculturally based items and services are exempt from any sales tax. Other items and services, when delivered outside of the city limits, are not applicable to city sales tax.

The board explained that land owners who do not live in Haakon County do not necessarilly help greatly with local sales taxes. These absentee land owners, though, do benefit from fire protection. They are the main group of people the board is aiming at by using a property tax to raise fire fighting operating funds.

Another suggestion from the audience was to use a tax per household. This would call for the same amount of taxes coming from a household that operates a million dollar business and from a household that lives in a mobile home.

The board did agree that perhaps a detailed explanation of the PVFD's dire need for funds could have accompanied each letter requesting donations. The board also agreed that "double dipping" would not happen, in that once a district-wide property tax begins, then the $12,200 that the City of Philip has been annually giving would be discontinued. Also, some people might decide to diminish or stop their usual donations, since they would then be paying taxes for that cause.

Members of the audience included insurance agents Glenn Parsons and Joe Gittings. First they warned that every insurance company has policies that vary from other companys' policies. They said that increasing a landowner's fire insurance dividend, thus how much would be paid to responding fire departments, could be increased with relatively cheap premiums. They did caution that, after paying out for several fire claims for the same client, some companies could raise premiums or even drop the customer.

The Philip Fire Protection District includes 18 townships. With each township containing 36 square miles, that makes 648 square miles in the district. Those townships are 1 North - 18 East through 1N-33E, 2N-18E through 2N-22E, 3N-18E through 3N-21E, and 4N-18E through 4N-21E.

The board is responsible for conducting the public vote on whether or not the opt out will happen. That election date has not yet been set, but must be completed before October 1. There must be two notices of the upcoming election, including a ballot facimile. The election must be from 7:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m. on the set election date, and it must allow absentee voting.

Haakon County Auditor Patsy Freeman is checking with the South Dakota Secretary of State office for specific voting rules. One South Dakota Codified Law reads, "Electors who are owners of any interest in real property assessed for taxes and who reside in the district are allowed to vote. An elector is a person qualified to register as a voter, whether or not the person is registered." This could mean that if there is a resident who has only leased real property assessed for taxes and the landowner does not reside in the county and is ineligible to vote due to lack of residency, then neither are allowed to vote. Freeman is working on providing the fire protection district board with a land ownership list, rather than a voter registration list.