When Orange County citizens get their property tax bills this spring, they’ll see it split into two parts. One portion will show what they’re paying for fire and rescue services, while the other will show what they’re paying to support all other county-funded services. 

Last Tuesday evening, the Orange County Board of Supervisors unanimously voted to create a countywide fire and EMS tax levy.

Supervisors agreed the move provides transparency in spending while illustrating value of service.

“I like this because it provides transparency and shows the actual costs [of fire and EMS],” District 5 Supervisor Lee Frame said after the vote. “Citizens can see exactly where their tax dollars are going.”

Virginia code allows a governing body to create a layer of taxation solely to support local fire and EMS operations. To do that, the county simply extracts those costs from the budget and adjusts the overall real estate tax rate accordingly to pay for them. This year, that figure is approximately $6 million or 12% of the county budget. The code also requires funds collected under that levy must exclusively fund fire and EMS operations and be kept separate from the county’s general fund.

According to assistant county administrator for management services Glenda Bradley, the county is expected to spend approximately $873,390 in the coming fiscal year in support of volunteer fire and rescue operations throughout the county. Meanwhile, it anticipates spending $5.2 million on its professional staff. Of that $6 million total, $1.4 million is recoverable through insurance, leaving the county with a balance of $4.6 million.

Based on estimated real estate taxes for the 2020-21 fiscal year, one penny on the real estate tax rate (currently $.80 per $100 of assessed value) would generate $452,230. To offset the estimated $4.6 million in fire and EMS expenses, that amounts to $.11 on the tax rate, dropping the advertised real estate rate to $.69. (See accompanying story.)

Those funds only can be spent to equip fire or EMS departments with apparatus for fighting fires and protecting human life.

Still, District 2 Supervisor Jim White noted that the dedicated dollars alone do not fully fund local fire and EMS services in the county.

“Those $.11 don’t buy us everything we need in the way of these services,” he said. “We still require our volunteer organizations.”

Orange County has five volunteer fire companies and one volunteer rescue organization that supplement the efforts of the county’s professional fire and EMS staff.

“This is a great step forward,” Orange County Fire and EMS Chief Nathan Mort said after the meeting. “It provides transparency by taking these costs and funds out of the general budget.” He also said it helps illustrate the value of services the volunteer departments provided in a combined emergency service system.

That’s something supervisors hope citizens recognize as well.

“I think this will give citizens a better idea of the value they’re getting from these volunteers,” District 4 Supervisor and board chair Jim Crozier said.

Frame expressed some concern that the move may curtail citizen contributions to the volunteer agencies.

“Once they see what they’re paying directly on their tax bill, they may not donate to these organizations,” he said. “Money going to the county is different than money going to these agencies. I’m concerned about the impact it could have on volunteer operations.”

“They’ll likely see what a good value they’re getting from the volunteers rather than what it costs for career fire and EMS staff,” Crozier responded.

“We want to emphasize to the citizens that we’re very dependent upon these volunteer organizations and they deserve citizen support,” Frame concluded.

Orange County Commissioner of Revenue Renee Pope said tax bills will reflect both the real estate levy and the fire and rescue levy separately, but emphasized the fire and EMS levy is not an additional tax or charge, simply the itemization of existing taxes.

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