Next May, Douglas County Fire District No. 2 plans to ask voters to create a boundary around the district’s coverage area that would force landowners not currently paying taxes for fire service to pay up.
Douglas County Assessor-elect Heather Coffel said there are “island” properties within the district that haven’t annexed, or opted, into the district and aren’t paying taxes for fire service.
According to Fire Chief Rob Bullock, there are hundreds of thousands of dollars going untaxed.
Nearly a dozen of the properties not currently paying for fire service have total assessed values of more than $700,000 apiece and are located in wealthy neighborhoods on Fisher Road, Hayes Eden Lane and Cross Creek Drive. Some are worth more than one million dollars.
Deputy Chief Scott Richardson said Douglas County is not unique in this issue and added that other areas have taken a different approach.
“There are places in the state where fire chiefs and boards have taken the stance that they’re not going to go, and they have driven and watched houses burn,” Richardson said. “It’s obviously not something we want to do. We’d rather solve the issue.”
Bullock said when fire calls come in, there’s no way to determine whether the property owner is paying for fire service or not. For example, he said there are places where two homes are paying for service, but the one in between them isn’t.
“The people that find out that they’re paying taxes when their neighbors aren’t, they’re not happy,” Bullock said.
Residents who aren’t currently paying the tax have been sent letters asking them to join the district, Bullock said, but they have refused.
“If everybody took that stance and said ‘Oh, I’m not going to pay for it unless I need them,’ then we wouldn’t be there for them when they needed us,” Bullock said.
He said the residents who aren’t paying are also receiving insurance benefits.
“They’re getting the benefit of the insurance rate because our ISO rating is a 3,” Bullock said.
The Insurance Service Office rates a community’s ability to handle fires, with 1 being the best and 10 being the worst. Many insurers factor in the rating when calculating home insurance premiums. So while the owners of these expensive houses don’t chip in for the fire service, they directly benefit from it being there.
The fire district has a tax rate of $3.16 per 1,000 of assessed value, so an owner of a $200,000 home would pay $632 a year for fire protection while an owner of a $700,000 home would pay $2,212.
Coffel said she wasn’t sure how the so-called island properties occur in the first place, saying the question was best directed toward the planning department.
She said when fire departments go through the annexation process, they start in the planning department. The assessor then serves as an administrator and collects the taxes once properties have opted into the district.
Planning Director Keith Cubic could not be reached for comment in time for deadline.
However, owners who opted out of the tax are still required to pay for the service if a fire affects their property, Coffel said. The owners would get charged different amounts depending on how many engines show up to the fire and how long they are there, Bullock said. He said the district uses state rates when determining the cost.
Coffel said property owners have the right to say they don’t want to be in the district.
“Because it’s not within a city, people don’t have to be in the taxing district,” Coffel said.
Couple forgone taxes with Roseburg’s ability to annex land within its urban growth boundary and the district is losing out on both money and coverage area.
Last month, the district approved a $12.4 million budget, with an $800,000 projected deficit. Bullock said the number isn’t concrete because he isn’t sure what outsourcing fleet maintenance will cost.
In personnel expenses alone, the district pays out nearly $7.3 million, but only receives $6.4 million in property taxes.
Last month, an information technology employee and fleet mechanic were laid off in an effort to cut costs. The IT position had a combined $127,908 in salary and benefits while the mechanic had a combined $133,196 in salary and benefits, according to data from the fire district.
Staffing per shift has also decreased by one person, down from 13, Bullock said. The entire department consists of 36 firefighters, a fire chief, a deputy chief, a fire marshal and two office support staff.
Bullock said the district has fewer people than it had 25 years ago, but is responding to four times the calls.
“Our revenue is not keeping pace with the cost of doing business,” Bullock said.
Some of the increased costs are uncontrollable, like paying for healthcare increases, but Bullock said he directed staff to cut 25 percent in each of their departments, which has made the materials and services budget “as bare bones as it can get.”
“In our realm, there’s two ways to address the budget: It’s either find a way to increase your revenues or decrease your expenditures,” Bullock said.