News from the Secretary

News from the Secretary by Larry Gabriel How are the fireguards in your township?

Did you ever wonder if all those little township roads go anywhere? Well, many don't.� Their purpose was to create fireguards, or as we call them today fuel breaks.

The laws from 1939 are still on our books. If a majority present at the annual township meeting, vote for "fireguards" the supervisors are required to plow an area of the section line not more than four rods wide, remove the sod with a "road grader," and thereafter inspect it and drag it with a "harrow" from July 1 to Sept. 1 to keep the vegetation down.

Property within the area surrounded by the fireguards is taxed by a special assessment for the costs.

A 1961 state law mandates that each organized township have a contract for fire protection and authorizes the county to do that for unorganized areas.

The law creating the state forest fire suppression fund dates back to 1967. This money is exclusively for suppression costs incurred by the wildland fire coordinator.

In 1971 laws took effect allowing creation of modern fire protection districts with authority to tax at $1.60 per thousand for fire protection costs.

In 1981 the Legislature gave townships an extra fire levy of $1.20 per thousand over and above their general tax limit, and gave counties an extra fire levy of 60 cents.

The chronology of these laws makes it obvious that primary responsibility for fire protection has traditionally been at the local level.�

Apparently, fuel breaks were very popular in eastern South Dakota. But, West River is a different story. Some areas have too few citizens to organize a township. Where no township is organized, the law gives fire authority to the county commission.

West of the river local fire funding efforts are lacking in many areas. Some local governments did not exercise full fire taxing before the tax freeze.� They are stuck with current funding for fire, unless they want to divert other funds to fire.

Special assessments are applied only to benefited property, and are not subject to the tax freeze.�It is a "user pays" philosophy. It is an old tradition.

Should the protected property pay all costs, or just a larger share, or the same as anyone else? Should local government or the state pay most of the cost? Should the same rules apply to East and West River? Should city folks pay for wildland fires?

These are just some of the complicated policy questions I will face as the Department of Agriculture adopts rules on the subject. I look forward to hearing your thoughts.

This issue is no small potato.� The state spends more than $4 million a year on fire prevention, readiness and suppression.

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