The Messenger 02.17.12
By CHRIS MENEES
South Fulton City Commission has passed the first reading of an ordinance which would allow the city’s fire department to respond to rural calls whether or not a subscription fee has been paid.
The controversial action, which has sparked heated debate, was approved by a 3-1 vote at Thursday night’s commission meeting.
Commissioners reviewed the city’s existing rural fire policy last month after the issue drew attention following a December 2011 fire outside the city limits. The city’s fire department currently offers rural fire service outside the city limits for a subscription fee of $75 per year.
Last month, South Fulton city manager Debra Craig presented commissioners a draft ordinance devised from several different municipalities in the area. The main difference was fees, with a significantly higher service charge per rural call for non-subscribers, and she explained it offered 100 percent response without non-response for non-payment of the subscription fee.
Review of the rural fire policy was tabled last month and placed back on the agenda Thursday night — when commissioners were presented with an ordinance to amend the city’s existing rural fire service code.
The city previously amended its rural fire protection plan April 19, 2007, to furnish fire protection coverage to areas outside the city limits for an annual fee of $75. The plan is styled to keep the rural fire service self-supporting and not a burden on city taxpayers, whose fire protection is covered by their city taxes.
According to the new ordinance to amend the existing plan, anyone who wishes to participate in the rural program will be required to pay an annual rural fire service fee of $75 for each piece of property covered and the South Fulton Fire Department will answer fire calls to the subscribed property for a service charge of $750 per call.
In the event the city’s fire department responds to a call at a property not covered under the rural fire protection service, including properties where the owner has failed to renew, a fee of $3,500 instead of the $750 service charge will be charged to the property owner, according to the ordinance. Failure to pay the $3,500 could result in legal action, including placing a lien against the property for collection.
Information Ms. Craig provided to commissioners indicates rural property owners basically have two options — pay a $75 annual subscription fee for rural fire protection or not pay the annual subscription fee and pay $3,500 when the city’s fire department answers a fire call on their property.
She noted the $750 service charge is usually covered by homeowner insurance and is billed to both subscribers and non-subscribers.
It was also noted there is no “Obion County” fire department and there are no county fire trucks, fire stations or firefighters at this time. All fire trucks, stations, equipment and manpower are owned and operated by each of the individual towns and cities throughout the county, with those cities providing the rural property owner fire protection with city fire equipment.
In 2011, the Obion County Commission approved a plan for the county to accept payments of $75 per year from rural residents to cover the fee for a rural fire subscription plan. The county collects the subscription fee, keeping 5 percent for administrative costs, and distributes the remainder to Union City, Kenton, Samburg, Hornbeak, Troy, Obion and Rives. The City of South Fulton opted out and decided to continue its own similar plan.
But it was South Fulton’s plan that drew national attention — fueled by unfavorable television news reports — for two consecutive years when the fire department could not respond to burning homes because the owners did not pay the subscription fee.
Commissioner Jeff Vowell made the motion to adopt the ordinance to amend the rural fire policy and it was seconded by commissioner Tony Perry — opening some vigorous discussion among commissioners Thursday night.
South Fulton Mayor David Crocker said he disagrees with providing service outside the city whether a rural resident subscribes or not and then trying to collect a fee later. He questioned why the new ordinance was even drafted and Vowell said he wanted to see a revised policy, which he believes is a better way.
Crocker said the rural fire issue is not a city problem but rather a county problem. Perry agreed, but said it has also become a city problem.
“It’s a problem for all of us, in my opinion,” Vowell said, adding that commissioners could vote their consciences on the ordinance.
Vowell contended the proposed ordinance still maintains the value of paying the $75 annual subscription fee, yet allows the fire department to operate as intended in “a better way.”
The commissioners voted following brief discussion about amending some possible conflicting language in the proposed amendment and some re-wording suggested by city attorney Karl Ivey.
Vowell’s motion to accept the ordinance was approved by a vote of 3-1, with Vowell, Perry and commissioner Thomas Pettigrew voting in favor and Crocker casting the dissenting vote. Vice Mayor Charles Moody was absent.
A second reading of the ordinance is required. It was also noted that existing rural subscribers would be “grandfathered in” at the existing lower service charge rate until the start of the new program year Aug. 1 and there is a method of pro-rating new subscribers.
The program year runs from Aug. 1 through July 31, with payment for service accepted from July 1-15. A two-week grace period would be allowed before subscriptions become delinquent.
Afterward, Crocker told The Messenger he believes the new rural fire ordinance is a bad business practice and is a disservice to the city’s taxpayers.
He reiterated that South Fulton has a city fire department, not a county fire department, and said the city commission’s action is completely different from what all the other fire departments in Obion County are doing under the countywide fire protection plan adopted last year.
Crocker also said he believes when people realize the fire department will respond regardless of whether the rural fee has been paid, subscription rates will drop. He said if people struggle to pay the $75 annual fee, they won’t be able to pay the $3,500 service charge for non-subscribers; and then, if the city takes legal action such as property liens, the city will end up owning pieces of property out in the county.
He said he understands the personal feelings and knows it is an emotional issue, but he said the City of South Fulton takes care of the City of South Fulton and its taxpayers.
In other action during Thursday night’s near hour-long meeting, which was opened with the Pledge of Allegiance and with prayer led by Perry, the commission:
• Heard a proposal for a new curbside recycling program from Bryan Barker of Barker Brothers Waste Inc.
The program, which is becoming popular in Paducah, Ky., and Mayfield, Ky., would provide the city’s residential and commercial customers with an extra cart for recyclables, with the exception of glass. It would be picked up every other week on a different day than regular trash collection and would provide an “easy, efficient and cost-effective” way to recycle, according to Barker.
As a result, depending on the amount of recyclables collected, customers would likely see a decline in their price for regular trash collection service as the pounds collected for recycling increases. It was noted concessions could be made for senior citizens or disabled residents who may not have many recyclables and wouldn’t need an extra container.
Barker said if the city is interested, he can provide Ms. Craig with the prices per household to add the recycling carts. Crocker said the city could advertise the program on utility bills to gauge interest and see how many residents are interested.
• Took no action on applying for a grant for a safe room, a structure which could be built to withstand extreme wind events such as a tornado and would also serve a dual purpose as a community room.
Ms. Craig indicated the room would cost the city no more than $7,000 with the use of grant funds and in-kind resources such as public works and she was only seeking permission to pursue grant funding.
Vowell expressed concerns about hidden costs and Crocker questioned how it would be decided who would be turned away from the 500-person capacity room in the event 1,000 people wanted shelter during a storm.
“They all pay taxes,” he said.
Vowell also questioned the necessity and said tornadoes and high winds typically happen quickly and residents may not have time to safely drive to the safe room.
Ms. Craig said she would prefer to have the room and not need it and she said it gives residents an option for safety.
• Learned a new free mass communications program to send residents text messages about important announcements will begin March 1. They could include emergency alerts, missing children, road closures or weather alerts.
• Was informed the public works department’s new pothole detection program has been very effective.
Staff Reporter Chris Menees may be contacted by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.