The Journal Gazette
Friday, May 20, 2022 1:00 am

Southwest Fire District wanting break of its own

Business tax breaks hurt department, council hears

DEVAN FILCHAK | The Journal Gazette

A Southwest Fire District official asked for guidance from Allen County Council members Thursday as the rural department struggles to buy equipment and hire or retain employees.

Brett Wygant, the southwest district's fiscal officer, said he has had a hard time filling shifts and buying equipment on the district's $2.1 million budget. Over the last four years, Wygant said, county government has approved $4.2 million in tax abatements. The fire district would otherwise receive that money.

Businesses frequently ask city and county government for breaks that phase in tax assessments on real or personal property improvements for up to 10 years. Because the improvements are new and weren't taxed previously, abatements supporters argue local taxes aren't being lost – just increasing more slowly. Abatements are often considered an important tool to stimulate economic development.

“These abatements are hitting us very hard when, if everyone paid their taxes, we could have a $3 million budget,” Wygant said.

More than 80% of the tax money the district has lost through abatements is tied to agreements with General Motors.

The pickup truck assembly plant is where the fire district is dispatched the most often on emergency calls, Wygant said. In 2021, the fire district went out to GM 165 times.

Meanwhile, homeowners and local farmers are paying taxes for emergency services provided by the Southwest Fire District that are frequently dispatched into the city when Three Rivers Ambulance Authority staff are not available. Fort Wayne property owners don't contribute to the fire district's budget, however.

Wygant said he is not in favor of increasing the tax rate because it is already high in the district compared with surrounding areas.

A few weeks ago, Wygant said, he met with the General Motors plant manager to see if the company would offer financial assistance, which was denied. He asked the council members to consider making an exemption on tax abatements for public safety funding.

Auditor Nick Jordan said County Council members can't enact an exemption, but they can ask companies to contribute a certain percentage of the tax abatement to public safety.

The county currently asks whether applicants want to voluntarily donate a certain percentage of abatements to the tax abatement development fund.

“You can say, 'Hey, GM, Michelin, whoever it may be. You're receiving this abatement. You're still going to call 911. Do you want to contribute X percent to public safety?'” Jordan posed as an example.

Councilman Chris Spurr, R-4th, said he thinks the public safety question should be added to the score sheets that determine whether abatement applications are approved.

Jordan said the fire district doesn't discern whether emergency calls are coming from businesses with tax abatements or ones that pay full taxes before responding as quickly as possible. Other local fire districts are also struggling with funding, he said.

Other entities might ask for similar questions to be posted to companies to encourage them to voluntarily support public schools, for example, Jordan said.

Wygant and other fire district officials have been told to look at their own budgets for any money that could be redirected to staffing or equipment.

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