County leaders relieved after Supreme Court rules West Florence Fire Dept. unconstitutional

FLORENCE COUNTY, SC (WMBF) - County leaders said they are relieved that a years-long legal battle with the West Florence Fire District has come to an end.

On Wednesday, the South Carolina Supreme Court ruled the West Florence Fire Department as a special fire district was unconstitutional.

"This is not about fighting one another. This is about trying to provide great fire service and what's adequate for everybody in the county," county councilman James Schofield said.

With 400 volunteer firefighters in the county, council members said the goal in creating the unified fire district back in 2014 was to improve the funding for the fire department at a fair tax rate.

"We want to keep them safe, give the proper equipment they need to protect life, and preserve property too as best as we possibly can," Florence County Council Chairman Kent Caudle said.

However, West Florence residents had to pay a higher tax rate than what they were used to.

In 2014, nearly 25,000 people in West Florence voted for the West Florence Fire Board to create its own special purpose fire district.

"They are a very densely populated area and they do handle a lot of calls, do a great job. They were having to use privately raised funds, generally speaking, every year," Caudle said.

Disagreeing with the decision, the county filed a lawsuit that same year against the West Florence Fire District, saying it was unconstitutional.

"We're happy with the ruling. Like I said, it's not a celebration or anything. It's just, you know, what we felt (all) along is finally coming to fruition," Schofield said.

The lawsuit took four years to prove. After the South Carolina Circuit Court deemed the West Florence Fire District unconstitutional last July, the district filed an appeal.

"I didn't know that it would take this long to get it done. You know, we were hoping they wouldn't appeal in the circuit court. I felt all along that it was unconstitutional," Schofield said.

Now that legal battle is all said and done, county council members say they are finally able to move forward.

"We're glad it's over with. We're looking forward to being together and not separate, and, again, to provide them with what they need to fight fire properly," Caudle said.

County council members are currently working with West Florence Fire to bring the department back into the unified district.

Council members said they hope to have a merging plan in place by the next budget meeting on July 1.

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