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OC’s fire committee recommends new tax to cover protection

OC’s fire committee recommends new tax to cover protection
Staff Reporter
Obion County’s fire committee has recommen-ded a fire tax be imple-mented to fund the cost of rural fire protection for county residents.
The fire committee will make its recommendation to the Obion County Com-mission when it reconvenes Friday at 9 a.m. at the courthouse.
If approved, the plan would ensure much-needed fire protection for the county’s rural residents and would end a subscription program that has been the subject of heated debate in recent weeks. Rural residents would be covered by existing municipal fire departments in exchange for a set fee the county would pay to those departments.
Obion County had entered into an interlocal agreement with Hornbeak, Kenton, Obion, Rives, Samburg, Troy and Union City in January 2011 to establish 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.
South Fulton had opted out of the interlocal agree-ment and continued its own rural fire subscription program.
However, Obion Coun-ty’s countywide subscrip-tion program was abruptly halted earlier this month after the county clerk expressed concerns about her office collecting a fee not authorized by state statute and decided to stop collecting the rural fire subscription fees.
The Obion County Commission addressed the hot topic when it convened May 21 and Obion County Mayor Benny McGuire presented commissioners a list of possible solutions that included a fire tax, a fire fee collected by a utility district, subscriptions to be collected by each city or a countywide referendum. He outlined the positives and negatives of each option.
McGuire had recom-mended the county’s fire committee meet with the city mayors or desig-nated city officials and fire chiefs and report back to the full county commission this Friday with a recommendation. The commission is recessed until Friday.
The fire committee convened for over 90 minutes Tuesday and, ultimately, unanimously approved a motion by Troy Fire Chief Mark Watson, a member of the fire committee, to re-present a plan to create a countywide fire department to the county commission, with funding for the plan coming from a fire tax. His motion was seconded by fire committee member Rives Mayor Stan Powell.
McGuire opened the meeting by reiterating the four possible solutions. It was noted that a countywide referendum would be very costly in an off-election year and would be non-binding, while there is not a utility district which will agree to collect a fire fee. He said the only two immediate solutions are a fire tax or subscriptions.
A fire tax would be assessed the same as property tax on all property outside municipalities and paid with property taxes at the trustee’s office. The funds from the fire tax would only be used for fire service.
McGuire said positive aspects from the past year’s use of the subscription program include a database of paid subscribers, the creation of fire zones and agreement among all municipalities and the county on one issue. The negative aspects, however, include maintaining an updated computer database and the potential liability, as well as how to handle non-subscribers and how to collect subscriptions.
Participation rate was 70 percent for the first year of the countywide rural fire subscription program and many of those in attendance Tuesday said the high percentage indicates rural residents want fire coverage.
All of the mayors and fire chiefs in attendance were allowed to address the committee before any decision was made. Several expressed a desire to see the county legislative body take action to ensure county residents receive fire service and many of the fire chiefs indicated they do not favor the subscription method.
Watson said until the county implements a tax-based fee, the issue of rural fire protection will always be debated.
Troy Mayor Jimmie Hart said he believes it is time for Obion County to “step up” and furnish fire protection for its residents. He said the issue is a county problem rather than a city problem for the municipalities to work out.
Hornbeak Vice Mayor Dennis Dozier said there is a moral obligation to take care of the citizens and he emphasized the “desperate need” for fire protection for Obion County. Hornbeak Fire Chief Bob Reavis said fire service is an emergency service, just like police protection. As an example, he noted someone could not opt to have law enforcement removed from their taxes in the event they never use the sheriff’s department.
It was also noted by some city officials that the lack of countywide fire protection could be detrimental to economic development and could be a deterrent for industry considering Obion County — particularly with the negative national publicity the county’s lack of adequate fire protection has drawn in recent months.
Union City Fire Chief Kelly Edmison reiterated that the past year’s 70 percent participation rate in the rural fire subscription program indicates people want the service and are willing to pay for it. He said many people were against the county’s wheel tax but it was imposed nonetheless, adding that a majority are in favor of fire service based on the 70 percent.
“It’s high time that the county step up to the plate …” he said.
By the numbers
During Tuesday’s meeting, McGuire said if county residents don’t pay over $750 property tax, he estimated a fire tax costing about 10 percent would be equivalent to the current $75 fee. He said he would speculate 80 percent of the residents don’t pay over $750.
“If you pay less than $750, you’re going to come out ahead with fire tax,” he said.
After the meeting, McGuire sat down with all of the mayors or city officials represented and collected information regarding what each city would need annually in order to provide the rural fire protection service for the county.
During the past year of the countywide rural fire subscription program, after the 5 percent clerk’s fee was deducted, Union City was paid $115,177 and the other six cities were each paid $25,199.
After meeting with the mayors, McGuire told The Messenger that Hornbeak, Kenton, Obion, Rives and Samburg each indicated they would need $25,000, while Troy would need $50,000 and Union City would need $120,000. South Fulton, which had opted out, would need $55,000.
The total needed would be $350,000 annually. McGuire said property outside all cities generates about $22,000 per each penny on the tax rate. With 15.9 cents needed for the $350,000, he estimated the increase in taxes would be 7.7 percent.
The final decision rests with the county commission when it reconvenes Friday, though. Published in The Messenger 5.30.12

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