The Enid News and Eagle, Enid, OK

Local news

June 24, 2013

Seeking renewal: County firefighters seek extension of rural fire sales tax

ENID, Okla. — Garfield County commissioners on Monday called for an Oct. 8 vote on renewal of the rural fire sales tax.

The resolution approved by commissioners asks for a continuation of the present one-tenth of one percent tax. The current tax is set to expire Dec. 31, 2014, and the resolution approved Monday would extend it for another 10 years, from Jan. 1, 2015, to Dec. 31, 2024.

Representatives of the Garfield County Public Safety Association, including Jeremy Messell, Phillip Ott and David Burford, were at Monday’s meeting. The association represents all 12 rural volunteer fire departments in the county.

The rural fire sales tax vote will be on a separate ballot Oct. 8, along with the Sunday liquor sales election. Commissioners called the election for this year in case it fails, they then can call it again next year before the tax expires. A change in state law states an election that is not approved by voters must wait one year before it again can be called.

The issue passed 2-0 Monday, with commission Chairman Marc Bolz and District 3 Commissioner Reese Wedel voting in favor. District 2 Commissioner James Simunek was absent.

The rural fire sales tax was first approved in 1996 for a four-year period, and was for one-quarter of a penny. That was followed by a second tax approved by county voters in 2000 for five years at the lower one-tenth percent rate, and the current one-tenth of a cent tax was approved by voters in 2005 for a for nine-year period.

In 1996, volunteer firefighters in 10 rural fire districts asked for the money to be divided equally among the 10 departments. Getting the tax approved was an uphill battle for the rural firefighters, since about 80 percent of the county population lives in Enid, and the tax was opposed by some in the business community and the city of Enid.

At the time, the departments said they had no other solution to pay their bills and to seek a stable income source to upgrade broken-down firefighting equipment. Spring fires had caused damage in many rural parts of the county, and in 1996, the rural fire departments depended solely on membership dues for income, fundraising dinners along with some municipalities that provided small amounts of funding. State funds totaling about $1,000 a year also were received, along with a special one-time $2,000 allocation for maintenance on the rural departments aging equipment.

Fire departments from Hillsdale-Carrier, Lahoma, Drummond, Waukomis, Douglas, Covington, Garber, Hunter, Kremlin and Fairmont received funding from the original four-year sales tax. Since that time, two additional rural departments have been formed at Breckinridge and Pioneer-Skeleton Creek.

Many say the rural fire sales tax has paid off. Rural firefighters were called last year when two boys were caught in an auger at a Kremlin grain elevator. Also in 2011, wildfires spread across the county during the severe drought, and rural fire departments were kept busy almost night and day.

Kathy Sebranek, deputy county clerk, said the fire departments received an average of $7,000 per month, or about $89,000 per year, during the fiscal year ending June 30. The county collected $1,072,628 this year. Sebranek, who lives in Covington, said she is happy for the tax.

“I’m grateful we have a fire department. If we had to wait for Enid (to respond), whatever structure would burn down. I hope people pass it again — it’s a very worthwhile tax to pay,” Sebranek said.

All of the rural fire departments that receive the sales tax have built fire stations, some of which have become community centers for their municipalities. They also have purchased considerable new equipment with the funds.

The initial sales tax amount of one-quarter cent was reduced in 2000 to one-tenth of a cent, because  most of the fire departments’ immediate needs had been met.

County voters approved all three rural fire sales tax proposals in 1996, 2000 and 2005 by substantial margins.

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