Now that the West Blount Fire and EMS District has been approved by referendum, events will accelerate to put a new board in place, and that body will make decisions concerning payment of annual dues, according to West Blount Fire Department Board of Trustees chairman and local attorney Greg Reid.
By law, the district officially goes into effect on the first day of the month following the election (Dec. 1), Reid said.
The first step to organize the district will be for the Blount County Commission to appoint a new five-member board to manage it and make necessary decisions. Reid said those appointments will probably be made soon after the new year, based on recommendations from the existing board and from other interested parties.
The new board will set up the billing policy and procedures for collecting mandatory dues, Reid said. He said he speculates that it will declare a specific 12-month calendar period for the first year’s dues. The $150 annual dues would be billed and payable at the beginning of the period and would become delinquent as of the last day of the last month of the period. He said he imagines the board will provide for pay-as-you-go arrangements for homeowners and businesses to pay monthly, quarterly, or semi-annually if they so desire.
“That’s what I think, but it will ultimately be up to the board to make those decisions and arrangements,” he said.
He said a significant change to current practice will be that the fire chief will be appointed by the fire district board and will be responsible to the board, rather than being elected by members of the department.“This gives the new board more influence than the board has ever had before,” Reid said.
Asked for his comment on the election itself and the community education effort that preceded it, Reid said:“It was an overwhelming vote. I was surprised and pleased. It was a strong showing, both for the fire department and for the concept itself. It’s also a credit to all those volunteers who worked so hard for months to present it to the community. The community really stepped up, and now the fire department has to do the same. They’ve got a mandate, but they’ve got the responsibility to go with it.”
The department’s path to forming the fire district began in the spring of 2013 following a community meeting in which residents expressed a desire for the fire department board to pursue establishing an official fire district to assure a steady flow of adequate funds to operate the department.
That meeting resulted from concern over the department’s marginal performance over several years previously which included failure to respond to calls. Other problems led to a downgrading of its ISO rating, which affected insurance rates for homeowners and businesses in the area. At the heart of problems experienced by the department was chronic underfunding resulting from the failure of many citizens to pay voluntary dues, and from public apathy in general toward the department.
Once citizens became involved, the board under Reid’s leadership responded quickly to their concerns. Plans to address the ISO problem and to mount a campaign to form a fire district under state law proceeded apace and in tandem.
With this election, both have been handled successfully, though Reid said recently that improving the ISO rating even further should be an ongoing challenge.