SC Supreme Court deems West Florence Fire District unconstitutional

FLORENCE COUNTY, SC (WMBF) – The state Supreme Court affirmed a circuit court ruling that the West Florence Fire District conflicts with South Carolina's provisions "concerning special legislation and home rule," and is unconstitutional.

A portion of the court's ruling, filed Wednesday, stated "home rule mandates the County is the proper body to address the matter rather than the General Assembly."

In 2014, the nearly 25,000 people who live in the West Florence Fire District elected the fire board to break off and create its own special purpose tax district.

Prior to 2014, Florence County operated a number of special tax districts to fund fire protection services provided by not-for-profit fire departments, the Supreme Court's ruling stated.

Those services were funded by a millage rate, which was different for each district.

According to court documents, at one point West Florence residents were taxed at a rate of eight mills, while Johnsonville residents were taxed at 40 mills.

The county sought to reform the method for financing fire protection by consolidating the districts into one.

"However, while the proposal expected to curtail the high millage rates for many residents, the rate in West Florence would nearly triple," the ruling stated.

West Florence residents reached out to members of the General Assembly for help, who in turn created the West Florence Fire District.

With the Supreme Court's ruling, the fire district will now transition to county control.

The West Florence Fire District's board of commissioners released the following statement regarding the ruling:

The West Florence Fire District was created 4 years ago because citizens in the West Florence area did not want to see an extraordinary increase in their fire taxes, and ensure the best possible fire protection. Since then the West Florence Board of Commissioners have been working hard to ensure that the citizens taxes stayed low while ensuring we provide top notch fire services to the citizens and the visitors of our area. Over the 4 years of existence the Board of Commissioners have spent over $250,000 in communications, extrication equipment, fire gear, nozzles and other equipment for the department without having raise taxes. We have also purchased a brand new fire truck for the Hoffmeyer Rd fire station using penny fund and funds that was put aside by the Commissioners and most recently procured a demo ladder truck by financing the apparatus. With the department being the busiest fire department in Florence County we have also hired additional personnel to help meet the call volume. We have made sure we have met what the tax payers of this area has asked us to do, provide quality fire service while keeping taxes reasonable. We have fought in the courts to ensure we would be able to keep serving the citizens however our options have run out. We have already been working with Florence County before the ruling to ensure they know what we need to keep our level of service and what equipment is needed for the department. We will continue working with them in the coming weeks to ensure a smooth transition.

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