by Christine Keller
Guess what? There’s another “special” election in Washington County–July 10! This time it is the volunteer fire departments who want to put their “voluntary” dues on your property tax bill. The issue affects over 3,600 Washington County residents in particular voting districts* in the Goshen, Wheeler, and Wedington areas of the county. If you live in or know people in those areas, please notify them about this election. The issue may affect other parts of the county down the road as other fire districts do the same thing. Please don’t misunderstand–we love the firemen and the work they do serving the county. We understand that not everyone affected by this will be notified about it, and that is our concern. We think if there is going to be a special election, then everyone should be notified in an effort that all might have the opportunity to know about the election and an opportunity to understand the issues. It is difficult for busy, responsible citizens to know about every special election that comes along. Washington County Tea Party would like to eliminate special elections unless there is an emergency as we believe they are being abused to pass excessive and unneccessary taxes. Bookmark the Washington County Elections Commission web site where notices of special elections are posted and check there often: http://www.co.washington.ar.us/index.aspx?page=186. If you click on that link, you may read sample ballots for yourself, find out what voting district you are in, and learn anything you need to know about voting in Washington County. You may stop reading here. If you are interested in learning more details about this issue, read on…. The issue on the ballot is whether or not to add “voluntary dues” to the volunteer fire departments onto property tax statements. While the firemen and quorum court members are insisting this is “voluntary dues” and not a tax, they are technically not voluntary, according to this section of the law (14-20-108) forwarded to us by the county attorney: “(c)(1) If the levy is approved by a majority of those voting on the issue, the dues shall be listed annually on real property tax statements and collected by the county collector at the same time and in the same manner as real property taxes. (2)(A) The county collector shall report delinquencies to the volunteer fire department for collection. (B) A volunteer fire department may collect dues that have become delinquent and may enforce collection by proceedings in a court of proper jurisdiction.” Please be aware that we have nothing against firemen or volunteer fire departments. The firemen are good people doing a good service for rural residents of the county. Fire fighting is probably one of the few legitimate functions that most people don’t mind paying for. We don’t mind paying for the volunteer fire department, but we don’t necessarily want them paid via taxes — that’s what causes a pool of funds that have the potential to become unaccountable. We could still end up with a county-wide paid fire department under existing law, as some are trying to do, and there will probably be appeals for more taxation for that. According to firemen we spoke to in the Wheeler and Wedington VFD’s, approximately 42% of the approximately 2400 households in their combined districts pay their dues voluntarily now. The other 58% don’t pay their dues for a variety of reasons. Some can’t afford even that small amount. Some own property but don’t live there. Some believe the response time wouldn’t save their property anyway. The point is–for whatever reason, those people choose not to pay dues. The 42% who already pay are the ones who will be contacted to encourage to vote for putting the dues on property tax bills. Those people will decide for everyone else. Some questions come to mind… …is this the best way or the only way to fund local volunteer fire departments (essentially using the tax man to bully people into paying “voluntary” dues)? …Have all other options been exhausted first? Is there a way to see that firemen get what they need without going this route? With the excessive taxes (combined total of federal, state, county, and city taxes) that Washington County residents pay now, surely we could find a way to get the right equipment to the firemen within the existing budget. Essentially, it amounts to unelected volunteer fire departments having authority to increase your taxes. While technically, they are saying, you are allowed to “opt out” of paying the dues on your tax statement (sort of, but not really–see red print above), how many people actually see their tax statements? We suspect most tax statements go through mortgage companies where they will be paid automatically. Of course, the mortgage company will opt-in for the fire dept. At this time, Washington County volunteer fire departments in 19 rural districts around the county receive funding from the state, the county (approximately $500,000 per year*), and some cities as well, in addition to their membership dues. The average number of calls they respond to per year in Washington County is about 1,000. The vast majority of those are medical calls, car fires, or brush fires. The firemen are volunteers, so they are not paid for their time, but they are paid a small pension (roughly in the $200/month range) after a certain number of years of service. *$500,000 is less than 1% of the county’s budget. This is the perfect time to remind people how important it is to pay attention to the quorum court where decisions that affect you are made, especially the spending of your tax dollars. We elect people hoping they will spend our money wisely and protect our interest, but they don’t always do that, and we citizens must keep a watch on them. Here is the quorum court calendar of meetings: http://www.co.washington.ar.us/index.aspx?page=299. The meetings are all open to the public, including all the committee meetings. Contact the jp’s and tell them you are tired of having so many “special” elections in Washington County: http://www.co.washington.ar.us/index.aspx?page=425 Someone we know is seeking volunteers to help him notify all the residents of these fire districts about the election. Contact us if you would be interested in helping with that project. Please let us reiterate, we are NOT against all taxes. We are against excessive taxation without accountability. We want to stop taxation just because it’s easier than cutting the budget. We want to STOP special elections where taxes are voted in with the smallest number of voter turnout–we believe this is done intentionally to dupe the public. We believe excessive taxation is detrimental to the future of this county, state and country. What we really need is to cut spending and utilize the funds we have more efficiently. The WCTP team *affected voting precincts include: Goshen, Greenland Township, Prairie Township 2, Prairie Township 5, Richland-S, White River, Wyman, Center, Center-H, Literal, Mars Hill, Wedington and Wheeler, Center-H, Harmon, Harmon-S, Johnson Township, Literal, Prairie Township 4, Wheeler, Wheeler-H, Wheeler-S.