The third and final reading of an ordinance to abolish the Ashley River Fire District was approved unanimously, 7-0, by Dorchester County Council at its Monday night meeting.
Starting on July 1, the area will be served by the North Charleston Fire Department. Firefighters from the department will staff Ashley River’s sole fire station on Dorchester Road near Lincoln Patrior Blvd.
Angry residents and Ashley River firefighters have spoken out for months against the abolishment of the tax district that funds the fire department. The department has served the district, in a lower unincorporated portion of Dorchester County, for 40 years.
“I think they shortchanged the fire station and the community overall,” said district resident Douglas Lowe. “The communication wasn’t good and I don’t think the decisions were proper.”
The fire district was created to provide fire protection in an area without county or municipal services near the district. Now, it is nearly surrounded by the City of North Charleston because of annexations.
County officials reiterated on Monday night that the district is losing because of annexations and because an intergovernmental aid agreement is ending with North Charleston, resulting in a $229,415 loss of revenue. The district’s 2020 budget was listed at the meeting as $719,634.
Officials also said that the homeowner’s will not see an increase in insurance rates because of the North Charleston Fire Department has the same ISO 1 rating as does the Ashley River Fire Department.
Several residents pointed out that the district still has enough funding saved to continue operating, about $818,572 in fund balance. County officials said that they were taking action now because the funding is not sustainable.
Residents at the meeting also said they were willing to pay more in taxes to keep the district running. Deputy County Administrator Rebecca Vance that every county resident is taxed at the same rate for fire service and said that if the county raised the mils for the Ashley River Fire District, the tax rate would have to go up countywide.
Many also asked council members to create a special referendum that would allow residents to vote on whether or not to maintain the fire district. Vance said that state law is very specific about the dissolution of special tax districts and said that the county had to follow the law. She also said that even if there was a referendum, it would only be an advisory referendum and county council would still have the ability to make a final decision.
Councilman Jay Byars said that he thought that the communication on the matter was poor but believes it was still the right decision for the county.
“It wasn’t an easy decision,” said Councilman Byars. “At the end of the day, we look at the future and we see a budget that’s not going to last. We’ve seen that in the past and we just want to do what’s right by the constituents.”
Earlier this month, The Ashley River Special Tax District, and one resident, filed a petition with the South Carolina Supreme Court – asking the court to require the county to directly communicate a plan to district taxpayers. County Public Information Officer Tiffany Norton said that despite the petition, the plan to abolish the district will still move forward.
Norton said that the transition of service over to North Charleston Fire Department will now begin, and the department should start serving the area on July 1.