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FIRE FIX?

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Court to address funding proposals

By Bryan Marshall

The Grant County Fiscal Court will be bringing a proposed ambulance taxing district back for a second reading and discussing possible fire dues during its next meeting.

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Magistrate Bobby Young made a motion during the April 2 meeting to take the ordinance off of the table and a vote on the final reading of the taxing district will take place during the April 16 meeting.

“We can’t sit around and do nothing at this point,” he said. “I feel like doing nothing is the wrong thing.”

A second reading of the proposed new taxing district that would help create funding for more ambulance service throughout the county was tabled Dec. 5, 2011, as magistrates wanted time to gather more information.

The first reading of the ordinance was approved during the Nov. 7, 2011 regular meeting.

If passed, each magistrate would choose a member within their district to be part of a newly created ambulance taxing district board.

The board would have the responsibility to set the rate for the taxing district, but the ordinance states that the initial rate would be set at 1.5 cents per $100 assessed property or about $15 for a home valued at $100,000.

Magistrate Richard Austin also voted to take the ordinance off the table for a vote.

“Really, we wanted to get it back on the table so we could talk about it,” he said. “That’s what my vote was. We may vote it up or we may vote it down, but I’m not real sure on that now. I’m still not sure about it and I still have some concerns about it. I think we still need some discussion.”

The ambulance tax is intended to provide a dedicated source for the ambulance service that will generate sufficient funding to provide one additional ambulance for the county, said Grant County Judge-Executive Darrell Link.

“When you evaluate the response times from the 911 center, the data suggests that one additional ambulance will be sufficient at this time,” he said.

The fiscal court has proposed decreasing the general fund tax by 1.5 cents to ensure that property owners will not be paying any additional taxes, Link said.

Magistrate Brian Linder voted against bringing the ambulance tax up for a vote.

“I just don’t think we’ve done enough research to know exactly what is needed for the county,” he said. “There are several different schools of thought out there. The fire chiefs have one avenue that they would like to go and Darrell (judge-executive) has another avenue he would like to go. They are totally different. I don’t know which one is the best. It may be that neither one are the best. It could be a hybrid between the two.”

The Grant County Fire Chiefs’ Association, who believe the ambulance tax proposed by the fiscal court will not provide sufficient funding, has proposed an emergency services tax 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 has discussed dropping the rate to 6.5 to 7.5 cents, which would cost taxpayers $65 to $75 on a $100,000 home.

In order to address adequate funding for the fire departments, which Link has said should be kept a separate issue, Link also has introduced fire dues that would be put on the tax bills of Grant County residents to provide more funding for the five fire departments in the county.

The cost of the dues would be $25 for the first year with the fire chiefs setting the amount for their district after that, said Linder.

Residents then would have the option to opt out of paying the dues for a particular year or opt out permanently.

Fire dues have worked successfully in other counties in Kentucky, said Link, citing a 500 percent increase in funding for Jonesville Fire Department when the Owen County Fiscal Court employed the strategy.

“Furthermore, the fire dues is a flat rate, and therefore every property owner would be billed the same amount,” Link said. “Finally, one of the key strengths of putting the fire dues on the tax bill is allowing a property owner to opt out, and this is very important as some households may find it necessary to do so in these difficult economic times.”

The fiscal court currently provides $25,000 annually to each of the five fire departments — Dry Ridge, Williamstown, Crittenden, Corinth and Jonesville.

If fire dues are passed by the court, Link said that money will no longer be made available to the departments.

“However, I am certain that the fiscal court and the cities would re-assess the need to provide additional funding should any fire department not collect greater funding by employing my common-sense solution. Finally, I am not of the opinion that the fire departments funding would decrease should we put the fire dues on the tax bill.”

The ambulance tax and fire dues proposed ordinances could be immediately rescinded, said LInk, if the fire chiefs’ association’s proposed emergency services tax is put on the ballot and approved by Grant County voters.

In the meantime, his solutions would provide a dedicated source of revenue, Link said.

“Just because these issues are brought to the table, doesn’t mean that their ideas are shot dead in the water,” Young said.

Young said residents are already taxed enough, but something has to be done to solve the funding issue.

“If we want services throughout Grant County, we’re going to have to bite the bullet to move forward,” he said.

The ambulance tax may not be a perfect solution, but it’s a start, Austin said.

“I don’t think the proposal on the ambulance side is enough to take care of all the needs, but it certainly addresses some of them,” Austin said. “We felt like it might be a starting point to get some revenue on the table. After that, maybe take a look at it after it’s filtered out in maybe a year or two. I don’t think, maybe in our situation, there is ever enough money for those people overall for the size of our county and the budget we got. But, everybody can’t have what Boone County’s got or Lexington’s got. There’s not enough money there.”

If the fiscal court and fire departments can’t sit down and compromise, Linder said maybe the voters should decide.

“The fiscal court has put out there a fire subscription fee and an ambulance taxing district,” Linder said. “The fire chiefs have come back with a fire and EMS taxing district. What I’m feeling though is that the two sides are pretty well dug in and neither side is really willing to come to the table and come to some sort of compromise. If that’s where we’re at, then I think we have to go to the people and let them decide. They’ll tell us what they want.”