Resident wants answers to fire district questions

On Nov. 4, citizens residing within the West Blount Volunteer Fire Department’s coverage area will vote on whether to establish a formal fire district under state law. If the referendum passes, mandatory fire dues of $12.50 per month ($150 per year) will be assessed, by law, for each residence, business, and church in the coverage area.

A citizen’s group working under the auspices of the West Blount Fire Department Board of Trustees has been campaigning aggressively since the first of the year at many venues throughout the coverage area to inform the public of the effort to establish the district, to explain the needs that underlie it, and to outline the consequences of failing to properly fund the department.

Some residents still question the need for mandatory fire dues, object to the amount proposed in the referendum, and argue that while many residents will benefit from fire department improvements, many will not. The Blount Countian has attempted to answer the questions submitted by one such resident. The questions and answers follow. Some answers are based on an interview with Greg Reid, chairman of the Board of Trustees of the West Blount Volunteer Fire Department. Assisted by a legion of volunteers, he has shepherded the fire district proposal since its initial inception in an April 2013 community meeting on the long-standing crisis in fire department operations. How does the $150 yearly fee compare with other districts? How many districts have mandatory fees?

Two volunteer fire departments (out of 21 in the county)– Remlap and Pine Mountain – currently have fire districts with mandatory fees. The fee for the Remlap district is $75 annually. The fee for the Pine Mountain district is $120 annually. The West Blount district is substantially larger in square miles, in number of stations and equipment, in the number of monthly calls to which they are dispatched, and in population served than the two existing fire districts.

Fire dues vary considerably among fire departments still relying on voluntary contributions. Seven of the 13 fire departments polled by The Blount Countian have billing arrangements with local water companies to collect $5 per month ($60 per year) on the water bill to be forwarded to the serving fire department. Payment of the fee is voluntary.

Two departments have a similar version of that arrangement: $2 monthly for residences and $5 monthly for businesses in one case, and $3 monthly for residences and businesses within the city limits, and $5 monthly for both outside the city limits in its service area for the other. Both are billed on the water bill.

Three of the departments contacted rely on non-billed periodic requests for contributions. They send out letters annually requesting contributions in the $75-$100 range for fire protection. One department reported it has not sent out letters since 2012. Response rates to the solicitation are reported to be as low as 20 percent of the served population. How much money is spent on servicing accidents on I-65?

Numbers were not available on the number of calls made by departments to accidents on I-65. However, the number of accident calls made on Ala 160 is double the number made on I-65, according to Reid. There are many people that own property with houses and buildings in the West Blount area that do not live in the district and will not have a vote in deciding if a mandatory fee will be imposed on them. Is this legal?

Short answer: Yes, according to the state law which governs establishing fire districts, it’s legal, said Reid, who also is an attorney and local expert on the legislative act governing the establishment of fire districts in the state. He pointed out that the City of Birmingham’s occupational tax was assessed on citizens who did not live in Birmingham, without their having a voice in its implementation. He added that fire dues will not be assessed on the land itself – only if it contains a structure used as a residence, business, or church. It’s been stated that people who could not afford to pay would be exempt (from mandatory dues). Who will decide who has to pay? Will it be a lifetime exemption, or reviewed regularly?

If the fire district proposal passes, a board of directors will be appointed by the Blount County Commission. That board will have the responsibility for determining exemptions.“I can tell you it won’t be an exemption for life,” Reid said.“It will be the board’s decision. It will be based on verified need and there will have to be documentation proving indigency. Age and people who are on fixed incomes – that will be taken into account, but it will be the board’s decision.” It’s been said that homeowner insurance costs will decrease if the fire district referendum passes. For rates to decrease, a residence must be within 1000 feet of a fire hydrant and the hydrant must be on a 6- inch water line. Many homes will not qualify and insurance rates will not go down. Proponents of the fire district have misled people on this issue.

Some residences will definitely benefit more than others, according to Reid, but all will benefit from having a responding fire department in place – compared to not having one. The Blount Countian is not aware of any statistics that would delineate how many will benefit directly in terms of immediately cheaper insurance rates, and how many will benefit less directly. However, some people will benefit directly later, if the department is able to further expand its equipment, personnel, and water-delivery capacity, leading to further ISO rating improvements that could benefit even those living beyond 1000 feet of a fire hydrant. It’s a realizable goal and one that will be an explicit priority of the board, Reid said, as long as he is a member.

Reid commented:“If the point here is that ISO ratings won’t affect insurance rates, I disagree with that totally. Try having an ISO rating that is the same as having no fire department (which the West Blount District experienced briefly in 2013). Then you’ll see what effect they can have.”

One other complicating fact: some insurance company rates are based partially on the serving fire department’s ISO rating. Some insurance companies do not take the ISO ratings specifically into account in formulating their rates, relaying on more general estimates of risk. Insurance companies are not generally willing to discuss their rate-making principles and practices in detail in public – presumably for competitive and other reasons. What if a person has a building, shop, or old house that happens to be listed on a separate parcel on tax records? Will that person have to pay multiple fees?

Short answer, no. The law refers to “residences, businesses, and churches.” The general rule is that if it’s not being used as for any of those purposes, a fee is not indicated. However, if a person has more than one house that is being used as a residence – or a shop being used as a business – on their property, then an additional fee or fees would be due. It’s conceivable some situations could require a ruling by the board.“It’s the board’s desire to be fair and to be fair with everybody – including the fire department,” Reid said.“After all it’s not fair for some people to pay for the service and some people not to pay, either.” General comment on liens

“A lien doesn’t mean there’s going to be seizure of property,” Reid said.“A lot of people think that, but the fire department will never seize property. Nobody’s going to kick grandma out of her house. Where the lien comes in is that if a house is ever sold, the lien will have to be be satisfied before the sale can go through.” He said the same applies to refinancing a house. If it has a lien on it, it will have to be satisfied first, before the property can be refinanced. What happens if the fire district referendum fails?

“If it fails, we’ll have to decide what kind of volunteer fire department we can have based on what we can pay for,” Reid said.“Currently 80 percent of the calls the department responds to are medical in nature. We don’t bill anything for those calls. If we don’t get a district, we’ll have to decide what services we’ll continue to provide and what services we’ll discontinue. But if we don’t get a district, there won’t be a fire department responding to 60 or so medical calls a month. We don’t have the money. We’ll notify 911 not to dispatch the fire department on anything but fires and accidents. The medical calls will go to the ambulance service. Of course, they charge for those calls.” Editor’s note: On most emergency calls of any kind, volunteer fire department personnel are the first responders to reach the scene.