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Clerk not collecting fire fees

Clerk not collecting fire fees
By CHRIS MENEES
Staff Reporter
Obion County Clerk Vollie Boehms has expressed concerns about her office collecting a rural fire subscription fee not authorized by state statute and has stopped collecting the fee — effective immediately.
Mrs. Boehms hand-delivered a memo of her final decision to The Messenger early this morning.
She said today her office has stopped collecting rural fire subscription fees and those who come in to pay are now being referred to individual cities.
The rural fire subscription program was discussed during Monday morning’s Obion County Budget Committee meeting, where commissioners agreed the time has come to allow the people of Obion County to vote on countywide fire protection.
The committee voted to take steps to place the item on the full county commission’s agenda for its May 21 session to proceed with placing it on the ballot for a vote in November at the earliest.
The ongoing heated debate about rural fire protection was rekindled Monday when Mrs. Boehms presented commissioners and a host of other officials with a memo dated Friday indicating her office would no longer collect rural fire subscription fees.
She explained the most recent development concerning the rural fire subscription program prompted her to ask more questions and do more research on county fire protection funding.
Obion County entered into an interlocal agreement with the communities of Hornbeak, Kenton, Obion, Rives, Samburg, Troy and Union City in January 2011 for the purpose of establishing a countywide fire protection service to residents outside the established town and city limits.
In the agreement, each municipality agreed to implement a standard subscription rate — $75 for each parcel/address — and Obion County agreed to collect and distribute all subscription fees — less a 5 percent collection fee — for all municipalities named in the agreement.
Originally, the trustee’s office was to collect the fees; however, according to Mrs. Boehms, the county trustee refused to collect the fees, stating all she could collect was taxes. Thus, the county commission placed it upon the county clerk’s office to collect the fees.
“It has been a nightmare ever since,” Mrs. Boehms said in her Friday memo.
Mrs. Boehms said she does not feel the interlocal agreement is binding upon her to collect the fees or maintain a rural fire database. She attached a county fire protection funding overview featured on the County Technical Assistance Service (CTAS) website and extensively cited state law in regard to how counties may fund a countywide fire department by levying of a tax or through appropriations.
In summary, she said nowhere in the funding overview does it give the county the authority to collect a subscription fee and disperse it to the cities or towns. She said it is her opinion the county and the cities have entered into an interlocal agreement in which the funding is not authorized by state statute, adding that appropriating funds and collecting subscription fees are totally different.
She said to her knowledge, she is the only county clerk in the state who collects a rural fire subscription fee.
Mrs. Boehms told the budget committee she is bothered by the possibility of liability on her and her office if the rural fire subscription database is not correct and said there have been ongoing problems with the database. She said she is bothered most by the possibility of someone dying in a fire as a result.
County commissioner Jerry Grady asked about the county’s fire committee taking up the matter, but Mrs. Boehms said she brought it to the committee and was told it would be brought before the March commission meeting and it was not.
Union City Fire Chief Kelly Edmison said over 70 percent of rural Obion Countians have basically already voted “yes” for countywide fire protection by paying the $75 rural fire subscription fee. He said if there was 100 percent blanket participation countywide, the fee would likely be even less than the current $75.
He said it makes sense to proceed with something else and the first year of the countywide rural fire subscription program was “a stepping stone” in order to prove it was wanted.
Budget committee chairman Danny Jowers said he is ready to allow the citizens to vote on whether they want fire protection, knowing there will be a tax for the service. He said the county’s fire chiefs can work together to decide on a fee and everyone can reach an agreement for information to be presented to the people for a vote.
Concerns were expressed about the county clerk’s decision to stop collecting immediately and the budget committee meeting had ended Monday morning with an understanding everything would remain in place for the time being.
New development
In a new development, Mrs. Boehms told The Messenger today the county commission cannot call a referendum in November because, according to election officials, it would be considered a “non-binding referendum” and requires a private act through the state’s General Assembly in order for it to be held.
The General Assembly has already adjourned for this year and she said it would be at least 2013 before a referendum could be held.
She said since there are no elections in 2013, it would require a special called referendum, which would cost the taxpayers $25,000 or more. She said that won’t happen and it will be 2014.
Mrs. Boehms said she has also spoken with the fire management consultant for CTAS and he said they cannot even hold a special referendum on the issue. She claims Obion County Mayor Benny McGuire informed the county commission of this in January 2011 when the interlocal agreement was approved.
She claims the fire committee and the county commission chose not to listen to CTAS and acted as a third party collecting agency for the cities. Her question is how the county can be a third party collecting agency when there are still only two parties — the county and the cities — involved.
“My deepest concern is the fact that I was pressured into collecting the subscription fee which was not authorized by state statue,” she told The Messenger. “I spent my entire summer last year working late nights and weekends to get this program up and running and it is still not fully functional. There has been talk of the cities suing the county for breach of contract, but I feel that if anyone should be compensated, it should be me. I did not receive an extra penny from the county for all of the hours of headaches, stress and overtime I have spent on this project.
“The county will either have to step up to the plate at the May county commission meeting and either pass a fire tax or amend the interlocal agreement with the cities for the cities to collect their own subscription fees,” she continued. “If a subscription fee is the final ruling by the county commission, then the cities can contract with a third party to collect it for them. But the third party cannot be the county.”
Staff Reporter Chris Menees may be contacted by email at cmenees@ucmessenger.com.
Published in The Messenger 5.8.12