By CHRIS MENEES
South Fulton City Commission has granted final approval to an ordinance which allows the city’s fire department to respond to rural calls, whether or not a subscription fee has been paid.
The ordinance was approved by a 3-2 vote at Thursday evening’s city commission meeting.
The action resulted from commissioners’ recent review of South Fulton’s existing rural fire policy, which sparked attention following a December 2011 fire outside the city limits. The city’s fire department had been offering rural fire service outside the city limits for a subscription fee of $75 per year.
After some heated discussion, the commission voted 3-1 at its January session to approve the first reading of the proposed ordinance to amend the city’s existing rural fire service code.
The ordinance is devised from several different municipalities in the area. The main difference is fees, with a significantly higher service charge per rural call for non-subscribers, and South Fulton city manager Debra Craig said it offers 100 percent response without non-response for non-payment of the subscription fee.
South Fulton 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 was 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 adopted Thursday 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 for collection.
Information Mrs. 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.
During South Fulton’s ongoing discussions, it has also been 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 — largely 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.
The proposed rural fire ordinance was discussed at length when it was presented for first reading at last month’s South Fulton City Commission meeting, but there was no further discussion among commissioners prior to Thursday evening’s vote on the second and final reading.
In addition, no one from the audience made any comments during a pre-meeting public hearing specifically to hear comments on the rural fire ordinance and proposed personnel policy revisions also presented during the session.
Commissioner Jeff Vowell made the motion to approve the second and final reading of the rural fire ordinance and it was seconded by commissioner Tony Perry. They and commissioner Thomas Pettigrew voted in favor of the ordinance, while South Fulton Mayor David Crocker and vice mayor Charles Moody voted against it.
In explaining his vote, Crocker has repeatedly said the rural fire issue is not a city problem but rather a county problem. He has emphasized 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.
In other action during Thursday evening’s meeting, which was opened with the Pledge of Allegiance and prayer led by Perry, the commission:
• Voted 4-1 to accept a resolution to repeal the city’s personnel manual and replace it with a new manual.
The commission had adopted a personnel rules and regulations employee handbook Sept. 16, 2010, and city officials have since determined the need to revise the city’s personnel policies, specifically as they relate to grievance hearings and related appeals of disciplinary actions.
According to the resolution, it is the commission’s intent that the city retain and preserve its status as an “at will” employer. To that end, the new personnel rules and regulations shall not provide for probationary employment, appeal rights or grievance hearings relating to personnel actions.
Moody, who voted against the resolution, questioned who authorized the new personnel manual and whether commissioners were contacted. Fellow commissioners explained the action was mentioned at last month’s meeting, which Moody did not attend.
Vowell said the action was proposed to clear up some verbage which was in conflict with the city’s charter. City manager Debra Craig told commissioners the Municipal Technical Advisory Service assisted and made suggestions.
• Authorized the city manager to negotiate with AT&T for providing the city’s Internet and phone service.
• Tabled action on QS1 billing software for the city pending commissioners’ further review of the contract, references from other cities which use the software and other information.
Mrs. Craig said there is “desperate need” for the software upgrade and Vowell concurred, but he said he would feel more comfortable receiving additional information before making such an important decision.
• Asked the city manager to check into which planning and zoning board members’ terms have expired in order for the commission to make nominations and take appropriate action. Moody had questioned the planning and zoning board’s recent decision to keep all its current officers for the next year, adding that boards are not set up for “a lifetime” and claiming no one rotated off.
• Learned a budget preparation meeting for next year’s budget is set for March 30 at 5 p.m. at the municipal building.
Staff Reporter Chris Menees may be contacted by email at email@example.com.
Published in The Messenger 3.16.12