By Robert Barron, Staff Writer
Enid News & Eagle
ENID, Okla. —
When wildfires threatened a number of towns across the state in 2011, rural fire departments got much of the credit for saving property and perhaps lives.
On Tuesday, Garfield County voters will decide whether to continue a one-tenth cent sales tax that has enabled rural volunteer firefighters to build up their departments and become more effective.
See a sample ballot of Tuesday's question here.
Clarence Maly, Waukomis fire chief, was on the committee that organized the first sales tax question, which went into effect in 1996. Back then, it was a quarter-cent tax. In 2000, voters approved a one-tenth cent extension for five years, and in 2005, voters approved a nine-year extension. Tuesday’s ballot question would extend the current one-tenth cent tax for 10 years.
Twelve rural fire departments in the county split the money. In the fiscal year that ended June 30, each received about $89,000.
“This will help the rural fire departments keep their heads above water,” Maly said.
Rural departments have a lot of costs. In addition to maintenance costs for buildings, there are fuel bills, oil changes and filters for the trucks, which can cost between $10,000 and $12,000 annually, Maly said.
“And that’s probably on the low side,” he said.
Marc Bolz, chairman of Garfield County Commissioners, was chief of the Douglas Fire Department when the issue was passed. He said response times are much better with the equipment the department has now, and mutual aid has significantly increased.
Maly said the system set up to distribute the tax money is 98.6 percent efficient, according to a statement from the Oklahoma State Excise Board.
“The money goes where it is supposed to based on the way it is set up,” he said.
The system is administered through county commissioners. The funds are collected and distributed, and the county clerk’s office divides the money to the departments, with each department having a separate account. Maly said it runs just like county government accounts, but there is no administrative fee.
“All the money goes for equipment, training, fire stations, maintenance and other expenses,” Maly said.
In 1997, he said, there probably was about $50,000 worth of fire equipment in rural Garfield County. Now, the value is nearly a million dollars because of the new equipment that has been added.
“If we bought what we consider the value of the trucks today, it would be nearly $1 million,” Maly said. “Everything is high, and when you put fire and rescue on it, it makes it even worse.”
Maly said Waukomis now has two large engine trucks, which pump 1,200 gallons of water per minute; two tankers, one 2,000 gallon and one 3,000 gallon; three grass rigs; one medical rescue truck; and two sets of extrication tools.
“Now, I have 9,000 gallons (of water) going with me to fight a structure fire,” he said. “The property values we save by having that capability is a good deal.”
The departments’ costs are justified, Maly said, with fire services, vehicle accidents and other uses. Using his department’s old equipment, it took 22 minutes to cut someone out of a car. Now, that time has been trimmed to less than 11 minutes.
“When someone is pinned in a car that long, it’s a long time,” Maly said.
Another advantage of the sales tax is seen by homeowners. Maly said Insurance Services Organization ratings have dropped in each department since the tax was instituted. He recently finished the information for his ISO rating and said it appears insurance rates will decline for the fourth time.
“Anyone who lives in a five-mile radius will save $390 per year on their house insurance,” Maly said.
Fire insurance rates on rural homes typically are higher than rates for homes in town, due to lack of fire protection. The rural fire tax has helped lower insurance ratings in Garfield County, he said.
Maly is one of the people going out in the community promoting the tax. He recently spoke to Garfield County Republican Women’s Club and has a number of other groups he plans to speak to.
Maly has been on the Waukomis Fire Department 28 years, and the last 12 have been much better, he said. Fire departments are able to do what they need to do, he said, because of the money the tax has generated. They also have worked out an agreement with Mike Honigsberg, certified director of Enid and Garfield County Emergency Management, to work as storm spotters.
“We’re the first ones out there, spotting the storms and notifying people of a major storm before it gets to Enid. That’s another benefit,” Maly said.
Maly said all of the rural departments pay for training through money from the sales tax, and departments now have emergency medical technicians and paramedics.
“We’ve come a long way with that,” he said.
Enid city officials opposed the original quarter-cent tax, saying they didn’t want to tie up that much tax money, but Jon Blankenship, president of Greater Enid Chamber of Commerce, said the chamber will not oppose Tuesday’s measure.
“It’s not an issue the chamber has taken a formal position on, but the rural firefighters serve a vital public safety purpose. I’m hopeful Enid and Garfield County voters support their sales tax renewal,” Blankenship said.