By KEVIN BOWDEN
A showdown is beginning to take shape over rural fire protection in Obion County.
It appears the county commission will be squaring off against certain cities in the county over how to provide rural fire protection.
The Obion City Council met Monday night and decided to follow the decision of the city council in Union City and after July 1 will no longer respond to fire calls outside the city limits.
The council voted 6-1 for the motion by council member Bob Anderson, which was seconded by council member Patsy Barker. Only council member Renee Webber voted against the motion.
The vote came at the conclusion of a contentious debate over how to provide rural fire protection outside Obion. The council’s vote ends rural fire protection outside Obion after July 1 and effectively forces the county commission to reconsider the issue.
County Mayor Benny McGuire attended Monday’s Obion City Council meeting. He provided the council members with a couple of handouts, one detailing four separate options for rural fire protection and the second handout analyzing the issue by the numbers.
“We cannot collect fire subscriptions any more (after July 1),” McGuire announced as he sat in the hot seat for about an hour. “We’re in a dilemma…there isn’t a whole lot we can do.”
McGuire pleaded with the council to implement its own rural fire protection program for Obion, with the support of the county. He said the city could use the county’s database program and could collect the $75 fee from a potential 335 households in the 61-square-mile rural fire zone covered by the Obion Volunteer Fire Department, which could generate up to $25,000 annually.
However, the question came up over who would actually collect the fees and be responsible for maintaining the database. That issue is one of the key sticking points in the debate over rural fire protection, because it exposes local governments, fire departments and public officials to potential liability concerns.
When asked who would be responsible for maintaining the town’s database, McGuire replied, “I don’t know.”
In fact, throughout most of the meeting, McGuire was on the defensive as he was forced to explain the county commission’s decision to get out of the rural fire protection business.
“The commissioners represent you,” McGuire stated at one point during the meeting.
“It sounds like they represent themselves,” replied Anderson.
“I think they’re more interested in getting re-elected than helping the people,” Mayor Glen Parnell said.
Several times during the debate, tempers flared and critical comments were directed at the county commission and how it is that body’s responsibility for providing countywide fire protection.
Obion Fire Chief Jamie Evans was one of the most vocal critics of the county commission, emphatically stating he believed commissioners will never fund rural fire protection “until their hand is forced.”
The council’s vote Monday night may have set in motion just that.
For an issue that dates back to the 1970s, it appears the county and local fire departments remain at an impasse on how to effectively provide rural fire protection.
Anderson addressed the issue of opposition by local farmers to using a property tax increase to fund rural protection. He said he owns 650 acres of farmland and would gladly pay a fire tax.
“You want to hit me with a fire tax, go right ahead because I have a conscience,” he said.
Anderson explained he takes issue with opposition by farmers over a rural fire tax.
“A person who owns a $150,000 home has to pay taxes on that $150,000 home but a farmer who owns $150,000 in property and he farms that piece of property can help earn that tax. In other words, he can earn money to help pay that tax rather than a homeowner who just has that as an expense,” Anderson said.
“The only people that can help in this situation is ya’ll,” Anderson told McGuire, referring to the county commission.
“There is no good answer,” council member Mike Miller said during the discussion.
The lone dissenting vote to discontinue rural fire calls outside Obion, Mrs. Webber recommended the commission adopt a rural fire tax, but McGuire said there isn’t the necessary support for that to be approved by the commission.
Mrs. Webber went on to say “it’s a sad day in Obion County” as local officials grapple with the rural fire protection issue.
The Obion council’s decision to suspend rural fire calls after July 1 does include one significant provision. Firefighters will respond to a rural fire call in the event a person’s life is at risk.
Nearly all of the Obion Volunteer Fire Department’s firefighters were in attendance at Monday’s meeting.
The commission’s rural fire committee is scheduled to meet at 9 a.m. May 29 at the Obion County Courthouse and the commission will reconvene at 9 a.m. June 1 to address rural fire protection. The Obion City Council is expected to meet in a called session during that period to revisit the issue.
In other action Monday night, the council:
• Approved a negotiated settlement of $7,000 to Elite Electric Co. for emergency work done on the city’s water system.
• Granted second and final approval to an ordinance increasing prices for lots in Rose Hill Cemetery.
• Will handle the installation of an air conditioning unit at the city’s public safety building in-house after no bids were received for the job. Parnell, an electrician, agreed to voluntarily install the unit.
• Approved a recommendation from Public Works Director Randy Evans to repair two damaged sidewalks on Palestine Avenue.
• Approved the purchase of four new swings for the playground in Huey Park and approved spending $300 for six sets of firefighting gloves for the city’s fire department.
Monday night’s more than 1 1/2-long meeting was opened in prayer, led by council member James Depriest, and the Pledge of Allegiance, led by Parnell.
Staff Reporter Kevin Bowden may be contacted by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Published in The Messenger 5.22.12