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Funding flap yields $25 fire fees

By Bryan Marshall

Magistrate Brian Linder called it “a step in the right direction” to providing much-needed funding to the county’s five fire departments.

The Grant County Fiscal Court unanimously approved a first reading April 16 of an ordinance for subscriber fees for fire departments.

The cost of the dues, which residents of Dry Ridge and Williamstown would be exempt from, would be $25 for the first year.

A property owner who owns multiple real estate parcels will only have to pay fire dues on three of those for a total of $75.

“I think it’s a good mechanism to start with,” Linder said. “It allows the fire chiefs to continue with what their goal is with the fire and EMS taxing district. It doesn’t eliminate that. I think this is a good test run to see how that would be perceived in the public. Sometimes, you have to take small steps to get where you’re going. I know everybody’s frustrated and you want to take a big step to where you want to go, but it’s good to get things started.”

The final reading of the ordinance will be voted on during the fiscal court’s May 7 meeting.

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 approved by the court, Judge-Executive Darrell Link has said $25,000 will no longer be allocated from the general fund for each department.

However, if the funds generated by the fire dues falls short of $25,000 per department, the remainder will be made up from the county’s general fund, Link said.

“It’s not our goal that any of the fire departments would lose money,” he said. “In this new budget that I’ll be proposing to the magistrates, I will again set aside $125,000 until we see how much money does come in. That way if any of them fall short, and if there are a number of people who opt out, we will make that up by utilizing that $125,000.”

Only about 22 counties in the state are currently utilizing subscription dues as a funding mechanism for fire departments, said Link.

The fee would be put on the tax bills mailed to residents in the fall.

They would have to pay their tax bill in full before filling out a form asking for a refund of their fire subscription dues.

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

Another form could be filled out to opt back in if a resident changed their mind.

A resident who opts to not pay the subscription fee would potentially pay anywhere from $500 for a single family residence to $1,000 for a multi-family residence if they utilize the fire department’s services.

Several attendees in the standing-room only meeting at the Grant County Courthouse believe the ordinance should not include an opt-out clause.

“Why put all the weasel stuff in there?” said Dave Rose, a Grant County resident. “Why not call it a subscription fee and it’s $25 flat, period? That’s the fair and just way to do it.”

While he would likely not opt out, Darby Muse said he could find 10 people who would if given the opportunity.

“As far as I’m concerned, these people here are just like soldiers,” Muse said about the fire fighters. “They go into situations they don’t even know what they’re getting into. They’ve got my highest respect.”

Linder said he did not believe more than 5 percent of residents would opt out of the subscription fees.

Some believe the $25 fee is not enough.

“I think $25 is too cheap and I don’t think there should be an opt-out clause in it, period,” said Dry Ridge City Council member John Renaker. “They want the protection, but they don’t want to pay for it.”

Chuck Givin, who served on the Crittenden Volunteer Fire Department for years, agreed.

“I think $25 is not enough,” he said. “It’s only going to replace what money they barely have now. And, I think the opt out is a bad option.”

Grant County resident Jim Conrad, a former lieutenant for the Florence Fire Department, commended Link, the magistrates and fire chiefs for coming up with a start to a funding solution.

However, Conrad said he believes creating fire districts may be beneficial because they would allow the more than property owners to be taxed, which would bring in a steadier stream of revenue to the departments.

“The coming of the Ark park and the peripheral establishments that are associated with the Ark park and everything else that this county is looking forward to, I think is great,” he said. “But, I believe we are going to be very far behind if we don’t step up to the plate and address this issue now and get it started...This $25 is just the tip of the iceberg of what you’re going to need as a county to fund what fire and EMS you’re going to need down the road. There’s no telling what our fire and EMS service will look like in 10 years. Some way or another it’s going to have to be funded. This is your start. I don’t think we should object to it.”

One substantial change since the ordinance was introduced relinquished the fire chiefs’ ability to change the amount of the subscriber fees after the first year.

The ordinance now states that the fiscal court would approve any changes to the amount of the dues.

Link said the fire chiefs would submit an annual report to the fiscal court that included how much money the fire dues brought in and what that funding was used for.

After having a year of data to analyze from the fire dues, the chiefs could ask the magistrates to increase the amount of the fees, said Link.

However, any increase would be up to the discretion of the magistrates.

“Obviously, the key advantage here is that if this court raised it beyond the point where taxpayers were comfortable, you can vote us all out,” Linder said to the attendees. “That’s why we want to keep it with the fiscal court because it’s taxes being levied on property owners. There should be an answer back to those. We’ve got to face everybody on election time.”

While the fire subscription fees received a first reading, two other issues are still lingering.

A scheduled second reading of an ambulance taxing district ordinance was removed from the agenda.

An emergency services taxing district proposed by the Grant County Fire Chiefs’ Association to help with fire and EMS funding is still in the petition stage to get on the ballot for the November election, said Crittenden Fire Chief Lee Burton.

“The fire departments are not stopping the drive for an emergency services taxing district,” he said. “That is still very much in our plans and we’re still continuing forward. We want the burden to have fire and EMS spread equally upon everyone, not just the landowners.”

However, Burton applauded the fiscal court for the fire dues proposal and stressed how it will benefit the fire departments until the emergency services tax is hopefully passed.

“You have answered one question that has really worried me,” Burton said to the magistrates. “Even if we get the emergency services tax, it will be about two years until we’ll start seeing money. We were concerned about how we were going to stay alive during that time frame. The magistrates have come up with a proposal where we will have money to continue operating. We’re not going to be able to grow. We’re not going to be able to add services. But, we’ll still be in existence.”