Chiefs propose Fire/EMS funding solution

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By Bryan Marshall

The Grant County Fire Chiefs’ Association hopes to establish a new emergency services taxing district to fund additional ambulances, replace expiring equipment and expand services.

The group, which includes the chiefs from all five fire departments in the county, presented its proposal Feb. 6 to the Grant County Fiscal Court.

“In the economic times that we’re in, dollars are having to get stretched further and further,” said Crittenden Fire Chief Lee Burton, who made the presentation. “Resources are getting scarce, especially with the fact that the grants from the federal government that were assisting fire departments over the years are starting to get a little more stringent in their requirements and smaller in the amounts they hand out.”

The fiscal court gives each fire department $25,000 annually — an amount the chiefs say does not cover fuel costs.

There is no money provided by the county for ambulance services.

Currently, ambulance service is provided through the Dry Ridge Fire Department, which has three ambulances, and Rural Metro with one ambulance.

Board basics

Under the proposal, a seven-person emergency services taxing district board would be created.

Three members would be appointed by the fiscal court, two would be voted in by the public as landowners within the taxing district and two firefighters in good standing would be selected from the fire departments.

The board would collect the money and distribute the funding to the departments, said Burton.

“They will decide where the money needs to go for the fire departments in this county,” he said. “Each one of the fire departments will get an operating budget. After they submit their budget proposal to the board, the board will say yes you can or no you may not when it comes to how big your budget is. We will also submit a list of items we feel we need in each department and the board will choose the priority of those needs and the timeframe of which they’re fulfilled.”

For oversight, the board would report to the offices of the State Fire Commission and the Secretary of State.

Not everyone was happy with the potential makeup of the taxing district board.

“I only want elected people elected by the voters to set my tax,” said Grant County resident David Rose. “I don’t want anybody to set a tax for me that hasn’t been elected by the voters. That’s why I don’t like a taxing district.”

Proposed rate

The fire chiefs’ association is proposing that the initial tax rate be set at 11 cents per $100 assessed property value, which would bring in an estimated $869,000 in revenue.

The maximum tax rate under state law that it could be increased to is 20 cents.

For a $100,000 home, a resident in the emergency services taxing district would pay $110.

“The fire chiefs see this as not a way to build great big Taj Mahals and buy $5 million fire trucks and $15 million fire houses,” said Dry Ridge Fire Chief Joe Jamison. “The departments are getting to the point where this is what the departments are needing to survive to continue to provide the services we’re providing now and be able to provide additional services. One of the comments in the past has been to put an ambulance in every community. That’s a goal we can work toward, but it’s not a goal we’re going to be able to achieve in six or 12 months after this is put together. But, this is a way for us to start building infrastructure so that in 10 years we can start seeing ambulances in every fire house and adequate fire houses and engines and everything we need as a community to be able to support the continued growth we need to have as a community.”

City of Dry Ridge and Williamstown residents would be exempt from the tax because the cities provide funding for their fire departments in their annual budgets.

Headed to the polls?

There are three options that could make the proposed emergency services taxing district become a reality.

Through an ordinance, the fiscal court could approve the taxing district itself, a solution the magistrates did not seem inclined to do.

The second option would involve the fiscal court allowing the fire chiefs’ association crafting a petition for 100 registered voters within the taxing district who have voted within the past four general election to sign.

With the approved petition, the taxing district would be placed on the November ballot for the voters to decide its fate.

If the fiscal court does not permit the group to collect 100 signatures, the association would be required to get the petition signed by 25 percent of the number of registered voters in the taxing district who voted in the last four general elections.

The estimated number of signatures needed would then increase to about 1,625.

The fiscal court did not vote on the issue during its meeting and an item would have to be placed on an upcoming agenda before they could do so.

Old vs. new proposal

The chiefs’ proposal comes after a second reading of a proposed new ambulance taxing district that would help create funding for more ambulance service throughout the county was tabled Dec. 5 as magistrates look to gather more information.

That proposal, which did not address fire services, would create a three-person board chosen by the magistrates that would have the responsibility to set the rate for the taxing district.

The initial ambulance rate would be set at 1.5 cents per $100 assessed property or about $15 for a home valued at $100,000, nearly $100 less than what the emergency services tax would cost a taxpayer.

The chiefs’ argued that the improved emergency services that would come with the tax would lead to decreases in home insurance rates.

“I really think you’ll have a hard time getting people to vote for 11 cents,” said Martha Hicks, member of the Crittenden City Council. “You’re going to have to get the people informed. If you just put that on the ballot, it’s going to go down. I think you’re going to have to start with a lower number. This is not, I don’t think, a wealthy county.”

Magistrate Brian Linder also questioned whether the tax rate was something voters would be willing to pay for.

“When you run a business, you have to look at two things,” he said. “You need to ask if there is a need for my product and what are people willing to pay for that product. I think you can make an argument there is a need for the product, but what I would ask you is, what are people willing to pay for it?”

‘Something has got to happen’

Dry Ridge Mayor Clay Crupper said people should be fortunate that the county has gone this long without have to pay some tax for fire and ambulance services.

He said that the City of Dry Ridge has been supporting ambulance service for about 60 percent of the people outside city limits in Grant County, a expenditure that has been crippling the city’s budget.

“We can’t keep doing it,” Crupper said. “We’re dipping into the reserve and dipping into the reserve. Something has got to happen. Either the county has to come up with some more money to help us or we’re going to have to close down. It’s just going to have to come to that. We can’t keep going like we’re going. Our costs our just going up too much.”

The fire chief’s association said their proposed emergency services tax is a better option than the proposed ambulance taxing district brought forward by the fiscal court.

The ambulance tax would not raise enough money to allow for adequate operation of fire and EMS services, according to the group.

However, Grant County Judge-Executive Darrell Link said his tax rate proposal was small enough for taxpayers to get behind.

“It had very little resistance except for (the fire chiefs,)” he said. “And, it would give (the departments) a basis of income, albeit it doesn’t give you enough. But, there is a mechanism there for it to grow...  It scares me to death that you would fail (at the polls) and here it would be another two or three years and we’ll have nothing. You’re going for an all or nothing. I think that’s pretty risky.”

Burton said stable funding is needed for emergency services and the association plans to make presentations about the taxing district throughout the community to make their case.

“When the public is educated to what the demands actually are versus what we’re capable of, I say this will pass,” he said. “I have faith in the public.”

What if he is wrong and the voters don’t support the taxing district at the polls in November, asked Magistrate Linder.

“We will step back, regroup and try something else,” Burton said.