By CHRIS MENEES
The Obion County Commission has rejected a recommendation that a fire tax be implemented to fund the cost of rural fire protection for county residents.
It failed this morning by a vote of 12-6 when the county commission reconvened for a session which recessed May 21 without a decision on rural fire protection.
In the meantime, the county’s fire committee met Tuesday and voted to recommend the fire tax to the full commission today. The fire committee’s motion was to create a countywide fire department which would serve the entire county area with the agreement of the incorporated municipalities and the county. The county would have signed contracts with the municipalities to provide service for the unincorporated areas of the county.
It had been estimated the total needed would have been $350,000. Property outside all cities generates about $22,000 per each penny on the tax rate; therefore, the $350,000 needed would have equaled a 16-cent increase and 7.7 percent in total tax rate.
Originally, Obion County had entered into an interlocal agreement with Hornbeak, Kenton, Obion, Rives, Samburg, Troy and Union City — all municipalities with fire departments — in January 2011 to establish a countywide fire protection service to residents outside the established town and city limits. In the agreement, each municipality agreed to implement a standard subscription rate of $75 for each parcel/address and Obion County agreed to collect and distribute all subscription fees, less a 5 percent collection fee, for the municipalities.
South Fulton opted out of the interlocal agreement and continued its own rural fire subscription program.
However, Obion County’s countywide subscription program was halted last month after the county clerk expressed concerns about her office collecting a fee not authorized by state statute and stopped collecting the rural fire subscription fees.
Today’s commission meeting opened with Union City Fire Chief Kelly Edmison addressing the panel in response to a front-page story which quoted Obion Fire Chief Jamie Evans in Thursday’s edition of The Messenger. There was also much discussion of the story among commissioners and fire chiefs prior to the session.
In the story supporting the tax proposal, Evans essentially tried to turn up the heat on the county commission prior to its decision today. After today’s vote, it appears to have backfired.
“As this year’s president of the Obion County Fire Chiefs Association, I have been asked, and rightfully so, to let it be known that the article in last night’s paper was not something the organization sponsored nor did we endorse,” Edmison said.
“I’m not going to stand here, though, and say that none of us haven’t had similar thoughts or verbally expressed to each other similar feelings — just like I know some of you on this commission have expressed imperfect thoughts to each other about us. Granted, you didn’t put those thoughts in the paper.
“I personally believe that good intentions were interfered with by frustration. Not condoning, but with a sense of understanding,” he said.
Edmison explained that he, too, is frustrated and finds himself feeling somewhat personally responsible “for where we are at this very moment.”
“When the county refused to pass a fire tax last year, you wanted to try this countywide subscription. Many of the fire chiefs weren’t happy with the notion. They didn’t like subscription services,” he said.
He said the negative national publicity over a South Fulton rural fire incident “left a bad taste in our mouths” and resulted in firefighters and many county officials receiving hate mail, phone calls and emails.
“But I was told, as were some of these other chiefs, that if we reached 70 percent (participation) in a year or two, then that would be justification for going with the tax,” he said.
Edmison said he led the charge and persuaded one other fire chief to go along, but not because he likes the subscription program.
“ ... But it was a means to an end,” he said. “And we went over 70 percent — not in three years, not two, but in one. And now that fact seems to be being swept under the rug. Frustrated.”
Edmison said the “fire feud” over rural fire protection has been under way for 25 years. He said the cities see it one way and the county sees it another — but he implored those in attendance to work together to find a solution.
“How many times have you heard the statement, ‘There’s two sides to everything?’ Well, it’s wrong. There’s at least three,” Edmison said. “Take a coin from your pocket. Sure, it’s got a head and a tail. But it’s also got that third side — the side that goes around the edge and brings it all together.
“That’s what the public expects everyone in this room to do today — bring it together. Find the solution to fix this problem once and for all. Find that third side. Set aside our egos, our personal differences, agree to disagree if we must, but fix the problem. That’s what you, as elected officials, are asked to do. That’s what we, as firefighters, are expected to do — fix the problem. This room is made up of individuals — individual communities and individual cities. But we are all Obion Countians. Let’s bring it together, please.”
After Edmison finished, commissioner Dean Jowers, chairman of the county’s fire committee, made the motion to vote on the fire tax recommendation, prompting further comment from commissioners.
Dean Jowers also said he had discussed options with some constituents in his district and found “just as many for or against.” He said those involved want “a win-win conclusion” and he said it is not a contest.
Commissioners Terry Roberts, Kenneth Barnes and Danny Jowers also addressed the panel.
Roberts said Evans has a right to his opinion, but he said Evans’ comments in Thursday’s edition would make him want to vote against the recommendation. He said commissioners have been catching a considerable amount of heat, but he said it was some of the cities’ elected officials who indicated the city fire departments would not be responding to rural calls outside their city limits without some type of action.
“It’s not all on us,” he said.
Barnes said commissioners felt like the subscription program implemented last year finally solved the rural fire problem and put it in the past, but it changed when the county clerk stopped collecting subscription fees last month. He questioned how the county could implement a tax and then give the funds to the volunteer fire departments.
He said he resented Evans’ comment in the newspaper that someone would eventually die as a result of the rural fire program and said commissioners previously had found a solution.
Barnes also took issue with fire departments claiming they do not receive assistance and he said “hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of grants” were received by local fire departments based on county population.
Barnes emphasized he is not against fire protection or the fire departments, but he said he wants to see a solution which will be fair to everyone in regard to what would be charged, noting a tax rate would not charge equally. He urged his fellow commissioners not to vote “out of fear.”
Danny Jowers made reference to Thursday evening’s fire at A&J Salvage near Union City (see related photo, Page 1) and questioned what might have happened if no one had responded to fight it. He said 70 percent of the rural residents want to pay for their service, but the county can’t find a mechanism to collect it.
“Is that not crazy,” he asked.
He said taxes are not always fair and, as an example, noted that people who don’t have children still pay taxes used to fund the schools.
Jowers said county officials had a program they thought would work and had said that if 70 percent participated, the people had spoken. He said most of the 70 percent would have seen a reduction from the $75 subscription fee with the implementation of a fire tax.
He also questioned an opinion which indicates the county cannot collect the subscription fee and said it has nothing to do with the state. He said it is a county problem which involves Obion County’s citizens, but it seems the county “always needs the state’s blessing.”
He emphasized the need for solidarity among the entire county and said the failure to find a solution at today’s session would result in continued debate to find a solution.
The vote against
The county commission has 21 members and implementation of a fire tax would have needed 11 votes in favor in order to have passed today. The six who voted in favor of the motion were Tim Doyle, Danny Jowers, Richard Arnold, Terry Roberts, Jim Bondurant and Cloney Taylor.
Voting against today’s motion were commissioners Donnie Braswell, Andy Crocker, Ralph Puckett, Kenneth Barnes, Dean Jowers, Allen Nohsey, Kenneth Cheatham, Norma Fowler, Dwayne Hensley, Paul Albright, Terry Dwyer and Jerry Grady.
Commissioners Ned Bigelow, Polk Glover and Sam Sinclair Jr. were absent.
After the vote, the session was immediately adjourned without any further discussion or decision.
Staff Reporter Chris Menees may be contacted by email at email@example.com.
Published in The Messenger 6.1.12