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The Grant County Fiscal Court heard arguments for and against a proposed emergency services taxing district Nov. 20 in the first of at least two community forums.
The pews in the upstairs courtroom at the Grant County Courthouse were filled as the issue of a new taxing district was debated for three hours.
“We’re not asking for million dollar trucks,” said Crittenden Fire Chief Lee Burton. “We’re asking for the funding to do the job that has been requested of us by the people of our districts, by Grant County as a whole.”
Grant County resident Carl Simpson said the fire departments need to know the difference between needs and wants.
“Our economy is in bad shape,” he said. “People are losing their jobs. People aren’t getting to work. Two families are trying to pay for a house. But, the fire departments say they need more.”
“People are getting upset because they are trying to shove this down our throat,” Simpson said.
The Grant County Fire Chiefs’ Association proposed an emergency services tax last year to to help generate revenue for both fire and ambulance services.
After initially proposing a tax rate of 11 cents per $100 assessed value, the association dropped the rate to 7.5 cents, which would cost taxpayers $75 on a $100,000 home.
It is estimated the 7. 5 percent tax rate would generate about $600,000 per year.
Williamstown and Dry Ridge residents would be exempt from the tax because their cities already spend $1.1 million on fire and EMS protection.
The maximum the rate could ever be is 20 cents per $100 assessed value on property, if approved by the taxing district board.
The fiscal court has attempted to address the funding issue by discussing an ambulance taxing district that would have an initial rate set at 1.5 cents per $100 assessed property or about $15 for a home valued at $100,000.
The fire chiefs have argued that the ambulance tax, which has since been tabled indefinitely, would not generate enough revenue.
The court also passed a fire ordinance in May that charges residents $25 on their tax bill for fire protection.
However, residents can apply to opt out of the dues and receive their money back.
The fiscal court has previously budgeted $25,000 for each of the five fire departments in the county, but no money has been set aside for ambulance services.
The Dry Ridge Fire Department and Rural Metro are the two ambulance providers in the county.
Dry Ridge Assistant Fire Chief Jeff Nantz said he believes the goals of the fire chiefs and the fiscal court are essentially the same — providing the most service for the least amount of money.
“We believe that Grant County is at a mission critical point in providing services,” he said. “Some of the apparatus and equipment has aged beyond safe usability and there is nothing in place for both short term immediate needs of our organizations as well as the long term needs.”
Along with several letters of support, the fire chiefs’ association presented the court a petition with 2,531 signatures of registered voters/land owners on it.
Only 1,067 signatures were required on the petition to bring the issue to the court and 1,425 signatures were validated by the county clerk.
Everything in the fire chiefs’ three-year plan provided to the court is for immediate equipment needs and the replacement of the Corinth Fire Department building due to age and use, said Nantz.
The only exception is the implementation of an ambulance that would be used in the Corinth area and operated by the Corinth Fire Department.
The taxing district board created by the emergency services taxing district is comprised of seven people, including three appointed by the fiscal court, two elected land owners within the taxing district and two elected fire fighters that are land owners within the district.
Nantz said those who believe the district would have no accountability are wrong.
“Fire districts are required to have audits, their records are public and their meetings are public,” he said. “Four of the seven members are elected the same as (magistrates) are and the three appointed members are appointed by elected officials. Whatever tax increase or decrease the district board passes, each of the seven are burdened with paying the same tax as everyone else. They have a vested interest to remain frugal.”
Robert Beach of Crittenden expressed that he had an issue with the petition submitted by the chiefs because he said he was told that residents would be able to vote on taxing district on the ballot.
Nantz said that it was always the intention to put the taxing district on the ballot, but it was discovered that an attorney general’s opinion determined putting a taxing district up for a non-binding vote was a violation of the law because it wasted tax payer’s money.
Regardless of what the outcome of the vote would have been, the fiscal court ultimately would have to decide the fate of the taxing district.
Beach, who admitted the fire departments need more money, also said had believes there should be a cap to how much the tax can be raised.
“I’m not standing in front of you to stop this tax from going through,” he said. “I want a cap on it and not 20 cents. If you want to go to $75 a year, I would give you that $75. I don’t have an issue with that.”
Wayne Myers of Dry Ridge said he supports the fire department generating more revenue, but the tax is too much.
“I’m for the $25 (fire dues) deal, but I don’t think you should be able to opt out,” he said. “I understand that if you own 10 pieces of property, you only have to pay (fire dues) for three. I think if you got a piece of property, then you need to pay it. If you’re rich enough to own 10 properties, then you can afford to pay each one of them.”
While the county is growing, it is not growing leaps and bounds like it was, said Garry Mulberry of Williamstown.
In a struggling economy, Mulberry said the fire departments need to do what residents have to do and limit the waste and cut the fat.
“There’s only so much water in the well,” he said. “You’re going to just have to take a drink, not get a bath.”
Two residents offered alternatives to a taxing district.
Virginia Beach of Crittenden proposed cities require a sticker to be purchased and put on all vehicles with the revenue used for fire and EMS services.
If a new fire station is needed in Corinth, John Souder of Dry Ridge said the community needed to lend a hand.
“We’ve got all kinds of talent in this county from people who can read blueprints to somebody who can pick up a hammer and drive a nail,” he said. “If we can just get a little bit of money and carefully do our research, we’ve got the talent to do this and save a ton of money without hollering tax the first thing out of the gate. There’s other ways besides tax. Let’s work together.”
Ron Walters, general manager for Rural Metro Ambulance, agreed the fire departments needed more funding, but he had issues with the proposed plan.
Walters said the departments risk their lives everyday using substandard safety gear and fire trucks.
“Jobs are going away. People are losing their houses because they’re going into foreclosure. This is not the time of prosperity,” he said. “This is probably the worst time the chiefs could have put this together, but they didn’t have an option. They’ve been pushed to the limit. They’re up against the wall. I agree with some of you that we maybe need to look at cost cutting procedures because some of these departments do have paid people. But, if they didn’t have paid people, what would happen in the middle of the day when you had a call. There has to be a plan. Is this the right plan? I’m not sure. I see some reservations with the taxing district.”
Throughout this long process, Walters said he has been informed about what has been going on, but not invited to discuss the issue with the fire chiefs’ association.
Rural Metro currently does not receive any money from the county to provide ambulance service.
Under the proposed emergency services tax, Walters said an ambulance service would get $50,000 — a figure that would not address the problem.
“As an ambulance provider for the majority of this county, I was never involved in that planning,” he said. “The budget was put together based on the needs of the fire department… I can tell you that $50,000 is not going to improve Rural Metro’s EMS coverage at all. It’s not going to improve Dry Ridge’s EMS coverage.”
There were also supporters of the fire departments and the proposed taxing district.
Dan Bates, a county planning and zoning commissioner, said while nobody likes to pay taxes, it is part of civilization and it is done to support each other.
“Would it have been worth $200 a year to make sure your child lived or even you lived?” he said.
“The city of Dry Ridge one time had a payroll tax that was going to come up,” Bates said. “People raised cain and they didn’t put it in. It wasn’t two weeks later that a bunch of people were talking and saying Dry Ridge doesn’t even have a swimming people. Folks, you don’t get what you don’t pay for. You have to pay for it.”
Dry Ridge City Council member Kenny Edmondson expressed concern that, without additional revenue, the DRFD would be forced to stay within the city limits when handling calls.
Currently, the DRFD covers 100 square miles, most of it outside the city limits.
“I’ve been sitting on city council for 12 years and all I’ve heard from the fiscal court is, ‘You’re going to get money,’” he said. “The only money I’ve seen is the $25,000.”
Edmondson said more priority has been put on parks in Grant County than safety.
“There’s got to be a compromise somewhere,” he said.
Long-time volunteer fire fighter Diana Morgan hoped the day does not come when she can’t get an ambulance to come to her home because the departments did not have the financial means.
“I think it’s a sad day when people don’t value their lives and care enough about themselves to want to have an ambulance and a fire truck available to come and serve them,” she said. “I love what I do. I love serving people. I love helping people. I hate to think that the day’s going to come where I can’t do that because you all have shut down the fire department.”
Jonesville Fire Chief Chase Duvall said it upsets him that the library, which receives money through its taxing district, takes a higher priority in the county than public safety.
“The library looks like a beautiful facility and everyone should be proud of it, but I personally have yet to step foot in it,” he said. “I should because, after all, I’m paying them $100.85. But, this library is not going to help us at 4 a.m. when one of us needs an ambulance. It’s not going to help us at 5 p.m. when one of us is involved in a vehicle accident. It’s not going to respond to our property at midnight when our barn is on fire.”
Grant County Judge-Executive Darrell Link said a second public hearing will be held at 6 p.m. Dec. 13 at the courthouse.
“Should that be the last public hearing, then it is reasonable to say that the court could render a decision based on the information they receive at this public hearing and they also receive at the Dec. 13 public hearing at our Dec. 17 meeting,” he said. “It is possible, but it’s not that they have to do that. They have 30 days after the final public meeting.”
Link said the magistrates could also wait to render a decision at the fiscal court’s Jan. 7 meeting.
“Regardless of what you hear, I do believe that fire departments need funding,” Link said. “I believe they need revenue. How we get there is yet to be determined.”