News that Volusia County is being forced to either raise property taxes or shut down four fire stations has sent shockwaves throughout the county.
Joice Stuhl, of DeLand, lives near one of the fire stations on the chopping block, and was shocked to see the sign in front letting homeowners know it could be closing unless taxpayers pay more.
"When you hear about the possibility that they might shut it down, it's scary because of having fires," said Stuhl.
But county leaders say a perfect storm is forcing them to make the choice.
Volusia County spokesman Dave Byron says dropping property values, followed by an increase in homestead exemptions, greatly lowered the amount of property taxes the county uses to pay for fire services.
Byron says the county was forced to use fire reserve funds to pay for services.
"We're going to run out of reserves by 2017," Byron said.
So, it's either raise property taxes by 45 cents per $1,000 in property values in unincorporated areas of the county, or close four fire stations:
- Station 18 — Rima Ridge
- Station 34 — Indian Mound
- Station 42 — Kepler Ridge
- Station 45 — St. Johns
That increase represents about a $50 hike per homeowner in what they are currently paying annually.
Byron admits closing those stations could hamper response times. That's what happened Wednesday, when a garage in DeLand was gutted by a fire.
Truck 45 comes from a station that's on the chopping block. It took them approximately 6 minutes to get to the fire on Wednesday. The next closest unit took about 12 minutes to get there.
Homeowners living near stations on the chopping block, including Tim Dreggors, said they want the county to keep the stations open.
"I prefer the increase," said Dreggors. "We need the fire protection."
"I would rather have the taxes," homeowner Lu Weesner agreed. "There's not another fire station in this area, so we really need that one."
Still, some are asking why the county cannot take funds from its general budget to pay the difference. Byron said they can't because county fire services do not support taxpayers within city limits.
"In other words, those taxes would be for services that they don't receive," Byron explained, adding that would be double taxation — which is illegal.
The next public meeting concerning raising property taxes for Volusia Fire Service funds will be held Tuesday, Feb. 24, starting at 6 p.m. at the Riverview United Methodist Church, located at 2253 John Anderson Drive, in Ormond-by-the-Sea.