Where’s the fire? At Spearfish City Hall Monday night, May 4, when the Spearfish City Council will give second reading and a public hearing to Ordinance 1212, which would authorize the city to hire a full-time fire chief to run the Spearfish Volunteer Fire Department. Currently the fire chief is chosen by the members of the SVFD itself, which has operated as an independent organization, not a city department, since 1881, before the incorporation of Spearfish.
What’s really happening is a struggle over power and money. Saying that fundraising isn’t keeping up with growth around Spearfish, the Spearfish Volunteer Fire Department has proposed creating a fire protection district, a political subdivision that would have its own authority to levy taxes on property in Spearfish and much of Lawrence County. The city balked at joining the district in February. Now Mayor Dana Boke is campaigning against the district as big taxes and big government:
The SVFD is currently collecting signatures in an effort to create a Fire District (a new governmental agency) empowered with taxing authority over Spearfish. While this would give them significantly increased funding, it would do so by adding an additional tax on property owners and create an added layer of government.
The Council and I cannot support this tax hike on our citizens [Dana Boke, “Spearfish Fire Protection: How It Affects You,” personal blog, 2015.05.01].
Armed with a godawful jumble of an infographic, Mayor Boke contends that by hiring a fire chief, the city will give taxpayers accountability and transparency without raising taxes. How the city gets the money for a new executive-level employee not currently on the payroll is anyone’s guess. The SVFD says Mayor Boke gets a lot of facts about the fire protection district wrong:
- Mayor Boke says the fire protection district would be governed by a board selected by the fire fighters. SVFD says “A Fire Protection District is governed by a PUBLICLY ELECTED Board of Directors (NOT firefighters, and anyone can run) with representatives elected from both inside and outside city limits, eliminating power of one over the other.”
- Mayor Boke says the district could tax “ALL Property Owners” (ALL, yes, as in everyone who might be affected by a fire and who might enjoy the services of the SVFD) at a rate of $200 to $320 on $200,000 of assessed value. This statement is true, but the SVFD says their projections show the cost will be at the very bottom of that range. The Black Hills Pioneer confirms that the SVFD has lowered its projected levy need from 1.3 mills to 0.93, which would mean $186 in new taxes per $200K value.
- The SVFD accuses Mayor Boke of cherry-picking numbers, highlighting a high year for city contributions to the fire department’s budget and ignoring the annual fluctuations based on vehicle replacement.
- The SVFD says Mayor Boke’s infographic unrealistically compares Spearfish’s fire department to city-run departments in larger South Dakota cities that have “astronomical wage/benefits costs.”
The fundraising-vs.-taxes argument harkens to a discussion at P&R Miscellany about charity vs. government. Providing for the general welfare by voluntary charity is great, but if charity can’t keep up with needs, what’s wrong with turning to government? P&R frets over taking money by mandatory taxation, but it seems reasonable to require every taxpayer to chip in for a service every taxpayer receives.
The Spearfish Volunteer Fire Department has put up its own website to talk about the fire protection district and the competing Ordinance 1212. Read up, then head for City Hall in Spearfish Monday night to see if the community can put out this fire and agree on how to fund and run its volunteer fire department.