Why can volunteer fire departments borrow on low, tax-exempt interest rates?
The IRS laws provide a nice benefit for volunteer fire departments. It provides the ability to borrow money at low, tax-exempt interest rates just like your local government. But the IRS has some rules to follow in exchange for providing this benefit and these rules must be followed so that you “qualify” as a tax-exempt borrower.
What are the rules that volunteer fire departments have to follow to meet the IRS rules?
- You must provide fire fighting service to a political subdivision that is not protected by another fire department.
- You must provide this service under a written agreement.
- You must use the borrowed money for a fire truck or fire station.
- You must have a public hearing that you are issuing tax-exempt debt (which includes placing legal ads in your local newspaper to announce the public meeting date, time, and place to the public).
- The political subdivision must sign a document that they are aware that you are borrowing tax-exempt money and that they approve its use for providing fire fighting services under the written agreement.
- If you place the funds in escrow pending construction of the fire truck (which is very common), you must follow the rules governing the use and return on those funds.
- You must file an appropriate form (for example, IRS form 8038G or 8038GC) with the IRS to notify the IRS that the transaction is tax-exempt.
- There are a number of other rules and regulations to follow such as you must use the fire truck for a public benefit or purpose among others.
What bad things can happen if the IRS rules are not followed?
Failure to follow these rules may result in the IRS “disallowing” your tax-exempt financing. If this happens, you may be forced to pay large penalties and taxes to the IRS. Also, your financing will probably revert to a taxable interest rate (usually about 3% higher) and you’ll be forced to pay for the back taxable interest. These can cost tens of thousands of dollars for the average fire truck.
First, the IRS will penalize you for not following rules. The rules are set up to ensure that only volunteer fire departments who are legally entitled to borrow on these special, low, tax-exempt interest rates receive this benefit. The rules are set to provide a check and balance system that you are the community’s fire department, that you provide an essential government function for the community, and that the local political subdivision and the community are aware of what you are doing.
Second, the bank’s contract will usually require you to certify that you will follow the IRS rules and, if the IRS declares you as non-qualified, the interest rate will revert to the taxable interest rate. This means that you will pay a higher taxable interest rate going forward but you will also be liable for the extra taxable interest payments in the past – from the beginning of the loan.
The bank can offer you a low, tax-exempt interest rate because the bank does not have to pay income taxes on the interest you pay to them. Since this large cost (the taxes) don’t have to be paid, the bank can accept a much lower interest rate from a qualified volunteer fire department. So, if your financing is dis-allowed, the interest then becomes taxable for the bank and they will pay about 33% of the interest income to the IRS for taxes on the now taxable interest. The bank can not eat this large cost so its contracts include provisions to compensate the bank if the loan is found to be taxable. These provisions include being able to charge you for the extra interest to cover the income taxes they now owe.
So, how can a volunteer fire department ensure that it will meet all the IRS rules?
First, it is important to understand that the rules if you want the low, tax-exempt interest rate benefit available to you. Enlist help from your legal or accounting professional to guide you through this complex and exact process if you don’t feel you have a firm grasp on all the requirements.
Second, ensure that the bank you choose has the experience to help you with this type of transaction. Remember, even if the bank makes an error, the IRS will contact and impose penalties upon you as the borrower. The IRS views you as the the beneficiary of the the rules and therefore you will be penalized if the rules are not followed.
The good news is that there are several firms across the USA that specialize in financing for volunteer fire departments. Ask the questions so that you feel comfortable that they can help ensure you are fully complying with the IRS rules.
This article is intended to provide general knowledge about the IRS rules and help you formulate the questions you feel you need answered to help qualify for this benefit. This article is NOT intended as specific legal or accounting advice and it not a substitute for actual legal and/or accounting advice about your specific situation. Please seek the help of professionals for the help you need in this specific type of transaction for your specific situation.