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Proposed fees spark debate

By Bryan Marshall

Fire chiefs believe fire dues proposed by Grant County Judge-Executive Darrell Link won’t solve their funding issues and will likely make the lack of funding more of an issue.

Link introduced the possibility of fire dues at the last fiscal court meeting and a first reading is expected to be voted on during the April 16 meeting.

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

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

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 $25,000 will no longer be allocated from the general fund for each department.

The chiefs say that the fire dues will not provide sufficient funding and in some cases could lead to less money for departments.

“It’s not going to fix the issues,” Williamstown Fire Chief Les Whalen said about Link’s proposal. “What he’s proposing is below what three of those departments are going to be able to survive on.”

Corinth Fire Chief Lonnie Kuhn said his volunteer department already sends out about 1,300 requests for fire dues of $40 per household.

Of those, the department only receives about 300 back, which amounts to $11,000.

“With the $25 fire dues, we’re going to be losing $6,500 a year,” Kuhn said. “I have expressed that concern to Judge Link. I really haven’t gotten a definite response from that.”

“Immediately, it’s not going to be really bad,” Kuhn said. “But, if it continues with the $6,500 a year that’s going to be lost, over a time, it’s going to catch up to us. They’ve said that the first year would be at $25 and then it would be up to each individual fire chief to set their fire dues at what they want. If it’s passed, there’s a possibility of recouping and not losing money on the second year and further.”

Kuhn said his biggest goal is to keep the department open to provide protection for the citizens of Corinth.

Jonesville Volunteer Fire Department receives funding from the fiscal court of Grant and Owen counties.

Three years ago, the Owen County Fiscal Court enacted a county-wide fire fee, which increased Jonesville’s revenue from $8,500 to $48,000.

However, Chief Chase Duvall cautions that similar fire dues would likely not be as successful in Grant County.

“I just think Grant County has too much incorporated areas for this type of ordinance to work as it’s being proposed,” he said. “Then you have the opt-out provision. Basically, I think the $25 is way too low. It just won’t work. It shows no potential growth for us. Crittenden has made it clear that it’s a step backward for them.”

Duvall said Jonesville could see a 75-percent cut in its funding from Grant County if the fire dues are approved.

“We’ve got a tanker payment of roughly $17,000 a year that I’ve got to make for the next eight years,” he said. “It’s going to make things tight. We’ll still hopefully be able to continue getting our funding through our Owen County government that we operate out of.”

Along with the fire dues, the fiscal court also will be discussing a second reading of an ambulance taxing district that would help create funding for more ambulance service throughout the county.

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.

The issue had been tabled by the court during its Dec. 5, 2011, meeting, but it magistrates Bobby Young and Richard Austin voted to bring the ordinance up for a vote April 16.

Magistrate Brian Linder voted against bringing the issue off the table until more research could be completed.

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.

The fire chiefs’ association is hoping to get its proposed emergency services taxing district on the November ballot.

“Our recommendation is to let the people decide,” Whalen said. If you’re going to raise somebody’s taxes, let us talk to them, tell them what we’re doing and why we’re doing it. If there’s anything bad to be said, let the people tell us. They can vote it down. Just to say you are doing something just to do something is not necessarily the best fix.”

Whalen described the emergency services tax as “a long-term fix” for departments.

The departments have been going door to door asking residents to sign a petition to get the taxing district on the ballot.

If the fiscal court does not permit the group to only 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.

“From what I understand, Dry Ridge has already received 50-plus signatures,” said Whalen, who added he was going to start soliciting signatures this week. “They haven’t had any doors slammed in their face.”

Kuhn said there have only been a few people who did not sign because they wanted to talk to the magistrates first.

“Right at the moment, we maybe have 19 signatures total,” he said. “But, the people we’ve talked to seem to be receptive to the idea.”

Whalen is hopeful that the magistrates will decide April 16 that they do not have to implement anything — fire dues or an ambulance tax — right away.

“You’ve got a chance of those three smaller departments going away,” he said. “Is that going to do a service to the community when you raise their insurance rates and put the public in jeopardy if we have longer response times coming from Williamstown and Dry Ridge because we are municipal departments that aren’t going to go away as easily as some of the smaller volunteer departments. It’s a scary situation, but what (Link) is asking is for those departments to go backward instead of forward. It’s beyond me.”