Lenoir fire fee questioned but survives

Mar. 04, 2013 @ 08:11 AM

Lenoir’s fire line charge is one of the last of its kind.

City officials discussed at a budget retreat Friday whether the charge has outlived its time. But they decided to postpone making any changes to it.

Like so many things in Lenoir, the fire line charge can be traced back to furniture. Based on the size of the water lines required, some businesses that install fire sprinkler lines are then required to pay taxes for them. It originally was conceived as a way to subsidize the cost of a large fire department made necessary by the presence of large industries in the city.

Most cities have eliminated their version of the tax as industries downsized or moved away, but in Lenoir it still brings $230,000 a year into the city coffers.

“It’s an antiquated charge,” Councilman Todd Perdue said. “There’s got to be a better way.”

The fire line charge came to be in 1991, when Lenoir was a manufacturing stronghold.

“This is a problem that is caused by the fact, and I don’t want to paint with too broad a brush here, but it’s caused by the fact that a lot of these buildings are not being used for what they were originally made for,” Perdue said.

He and Mayor Pro Tem T.J. Rohr argued the charge is too much of a burden on businesses.

“I don’t think in today’s world, I don’t think we can continue to charge these fire line charges,” Perdue said. “We’re surcharging them for making their buildings safer.”

The charge was originally a way to push some of the costs of a large fire department back on the industries themselves.

Rohr criticized that logic.

“I think we should charge people who live in high-crime areas more for police services,” he said sarcastically. “It’s the same argument.”

Other council members and city employees say the charge is still necessary. The factories may be empty, but they’re still here, after all. And they can still burn.

Fire Chief Ken Briscoe pointed to a fire at the Bernhardt building Thursday as an example. The department was able to respond so quickly that there was virtually no damage.

Rohr suggested phasing the tax out over a period of two or three years.

Others, including Councilman Merlin Perry and Councilman Lewis Price, couldn’t see how the city could adjust the budget to make up for losing almost a quarter of a million dollars in revenue, even over a longer span of time.

Briscoe was torn. Though the money goes to the general fund, not the fire department budget, it still allows him to have a robust department.

On the other hand, people rarely die in buildings with fire sprinklers. He wants people to have them.

“I want you to have a sprinkler system,” Briscoe said. “But I also need the funding, to keep the service up to the level that you’ve expected as a citizen of the city of Lenoir.”

The tax is brought up from time to time. It was last discussed in 2011. But no action was taken then, and it’s not likely any action will be taken this fiscal year, based on discussion at Friday's budget retreat.

It may be gone someday. Rohr expressed particularly strong support for eliminating the tax.

But most council members couldn't conceive of eliminating revenue in a year already plagued by budget troubles, they said.

“Is there a reason we’re still doing this?” Perdue said.

Rohr had an answer: “Because it’s 230,000.”