Is new fire tax necessary to build Farmville fire station?

May 5, 2023

Imagine a small town where the price tag of improving a public parking lot of thirteen spaces balloons from a total cost to taxpayers of $200,000 to $520,000. Think of those same commissioners who approved that $320,000 increase later voting for the town to pay $24,000 per month in “rent” as a trade for a temporary library space. Imagine them repeatedly bemoaning the need for downtown parking, pushing a plan to demolish an iconic building on the anchor corner in order to replace it with parking, then quickly selling the town’s centrally-located Main Street parking lot for a fraction of its value.

Consider these elected officials agreeing to trade the town’s fire station with the plan to complete building a new station in two years, then voting unanimously the very next month to borrow $5 million to demolish the public library and build a new one. Imagine commissioners knowing full well the need for $4 to $8 million for something as crucial as a fire station, yet committing $5 million to a new library. (The $1.176 million in library loan interest is not part of the equation, as it almost was covered by the total brought in for construction from donations, fundraisers and grants.)

Reflect on the town’s unassigned General Fund balance plummeting from 46% to 12% over the two years when the $5 million loan payments first are being made, while virtually no money is being set aside for the construction of the fire station. Could budgeting $24,000 for the library’s utilities for one year, $14,000 short of the actual bill, indicate a pattern of lack of foresight? What kind of municipal leader would fail to do any financial planning after giving up the town’s only fire station?

Would you allow any such people to be in charge of your personal or family finances? Would you want them to allocate the money you pay in taxes? At local, state and national levels we often see politicians who have difficulty balancing a budget. We repeatedly notice special people on the receiving end of contracts, zoning, rezoning, good deals on buying surplus property or selling personal property. To be fair, there are politicians who refuse to participate in favoritism.

Currently, the Town of Farmville is grasping at straws, desperate for funds to build our new fire station which was supposed to be completed in 2021. On February 20, 2023 Farmville Town Manager David Hodgkins went before the Pitt County Board of Commissioners, asking for help. He seemed reticent to let on that our town no longer actually owned a fire station. “The current station was built in 1928. It is not ADA accessible. It’s poorly located within the downtown area of our town and cannot be expanded.” Hodgkins had been quoted in newspapers and on social media on multiple occasions boasting of Farmville’s excellent financial situation. Before Pitt County Commissioners, however, he spoke of our limited resources and our need for additional sources of revenue. Of course, Hodgkins did not mention what projects Farmville prioritized ahead of the new fire station.

Commissioner Tom Coulson proudly brought up the Eastern Pines Fire-Rescue Department, located on his side of Pitt County. He described how the whole community got together, agreed on the need and decided to have a major fire tax increase in Eastern Pines. Coulson asked about increasing the fire tax in Farmville. Certainly, with over 20 fire stations in Pitt County, there is not enough money to help finance all such new construction. Finally, one commissioner pointedly asked about what rate in-town residents pay for their Farmville fire tax. Seemingly reluctant, Hodgkins admitted that in-town residents pay no fire tax. Our rural residents, however, pay Farmville a fire tax. Years ago, the rural fire department ceased to operate, donating its equipment and well over $100,000 to the Farmville Fire Department with a legal document outlining future fire protection guaranteed for those residents. Some involved with that agreement understood that rural residents would pay the same fire tax rate as those in town. Obviously, that was not the case.

There are countless politicians who commit themselves never to raise taxes. Some of these same politicians have no problem drastically raising water, sewer and electric rates. What’s the difference? Part of it is simply semantics. Also, in-town property owners can vote. They might be inclined to dislike tax increases. Out-of-town residents who use town utilities and watch them go up cannot vote in municipal elections. They have no recourse as voters.

Speaking of municipal elections, there will be one on Tuesday, November 7. Farmville will elect a mayor and three commissioners. Candidates can file starting July 7 and ending by noon on July 21.

The Town of Farmville would benefit from officials who would seek the best outcomes for the most people and who would serve with unwavering wisdom and integrity. We are in desperate need of a new fire station and leaders who will figure out how to fund it.

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