Who'll put out the fires?

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County fire department says it will quit Dec. 31

By Geoff Hamill

If the Washington County Fire Protection Association sticks to its plans, you can forget about the group’s long-discussed plans of building a new fire station, because it won’t be needed. As of Dec. 31, the association will cease to exist, and so will the valuable services offered to many Washington Countians.

In a letter delivered to The Springfield Sun on Thursday, Nov. 18, the WCFPA announced that it will no longer provide fire coverage, and directed that responsibility to the Washington County Fiscal Court and Judge-Executive John Settles.
According to the letter, the decision came based on “the action of Washington County Judge John Settles and the members of the fiscal court.”
Upon being given a copy of the letter that was delivered to The Springfield Sun, Settles said he was confused by the statement because no action has been taken on anything to do with the fire protection district.
“It says due to the actions of Judge John Settles and the fiscal court, but there has been no action, so I don’t know what they are referring to,” he said.
Settles explained that the only thing done by the court in relation to the fire association was some discussions about possible property purchases, but he stressed that those conversations were held in executive session, and were not subject to the public.
“What we talk about in executive session has to stay there (in executive session), and we have been talking about properties, and part of that conversation has involved the fire department,” Settles said. “I am really not at liberty, since there has been no action taken in open court, and I’d be breaking the trust of the court and open records (laws) if I said anything.”
Settles also addressed a letter he received prior to the one being delivered to The Sun. He said that letter refers to a petition, but added that no petition has been filed. The petition he mentioned would only be permitted in two ways. The first would be for a person subject to paying the county’s mandatory membership dues, also known by some citizens as the fire tax, which is $45 per year, to request a public hearing. The second way would be for the fiscal court to request the hearing. In each instance, the court would be able to hear discussion from the public and then consider eliminating the tax, but Settles stressed that those were the only two actions of a petition on the issue.
The fire tax for the county was put in place and citizens began to pay it six years ago. Settles said the most recent property tax bills sent out to citizens mark the seventh year the tax would be collected. Each property that is not within the Springfield city limits, or under the coverage of the Mackville or Willisburg fire departments, is subject to the $45 fee. Settles said citizens who own multiple properties are required to pay the fee on two properties, but any additional properties would be exempt, making the maximum amount for an individual taxpayer $90 per year.
According to statistics from the Washington County Property Valuation Administrator’s office, a total of 2,415 properties are billed for the fire tax, and a total of $108,675 is collected each year.
The letter delivered to The Springfield Sun, which also appears on Page A4 of this week’s newspaper, indicated that the fire protection association is looking at options to refund the fees paid this year, as well as “other actions that need to be taken to disburse the assets of the corporation will be handled through our lawyer.” Settles said this is something he is not certain about, and indicated that there is no guarantee the tax money will be refunded.
Settles said there is question as to who actually owns the property used by the fire protection association since it was purchased, either in part or in whole, by taxpayer money.
“Our understanding is that even if a portion of it is paid for through taxpayer dollars, it belongs to the taxpayers,” Settles said of the equipment.
As for tax refunds, he said that may also be inaccurate. Settles explained that the understanding of both himself and the court is that all the money collected belongs to the county because it is a mandatory fee collected, and becomes public property.
“Having just read that (letter), I don’t know that they can refund those fees,” he said.
When the issue was brought up at Monday’s fiscal court meeting, Settles asked if anyone representing the fire association was present, but no one spoke up.
“I was hoping they would be here this morning to answer some questions and offer comments,” Settles said.
Magistrate Billy Riney said he didn’t think the group wants to serve the people of the county.
“It sounds to me like they’re not wanting to represent the people in the county as far as fire protection,” said Riney.
“In order for them to do away with this corporation, would we get back all of the property that they bought with the $600,000 they collected?”
Washington County Attorney Hamilton Simms replied, and said the fire protection association would be required to come up with a plan of distribution, and it would have to go to a non-profit organization.
“It’s not something we can sell and split it up,” Simms said.
Riney responded, “Something ought to be done to stop any more money going to them.”
Magistrate Ben Settles also showed disappointment in the news.
“How can they take money from people out in the county and not protect them,” magistrate Settles asked.
Insurance rates were a concern for the fiscal court members, and Judge Settles said the lack of a fire department could make rates go up for citizens.
“If there is no legal fire department, then people’s insurance rates will possibly rise at the time of renewal. If you are in a Class 10, they are not going to change. But if you live in a Class 9 or below, then they will go to a Class 10 and the insurance rates will definitely change,” Judge Settles said. “You just can’t put a pen on a map and draw a circle, it’s done by road miles. It’s hard to determine how many people this is going to affect because you don’t know how many people are served within that five-mile traveling distance.”
The impact on the county’s citizens was also a concern for magistrate Greg Simms.
“They have collected $600,000 in six years, and the main reason why we put this into effect is to get some fire protection out in the county,” said Simms. “We need better protection where we have all of those Class 10 residents, like in my area.”
With no action taken at this point, and no representative from the fire protection association on hand to comment, the fiscal court voted Monday to appoint a board to oversee fire protection in the county. The six-member board will consist of two representatives from the fire district, two from the county’s fiscal court, and two at-large members, with one being appointed by the fire district and one being appointed by the fiscal court.
“This board would work toward a reasonable resolution to the problem we have now,” said Judge Settles. “That’s pending the fire district’s approval to meet and agree to the idea.”
Attorney Simms said there is no way to control the fire protection association, or to make the group go along with the idea of a board.
“They are a volunteer group,” said Hamilton Simms. “They are not under county control. If they don’t want to do it, we can’t set their rules and regulations.
Magistrates Greg Simms and Terry Tingle were appointed to the board to represent the fiscal court.
“We did not write this law, a legislator did,” added attorney Simms. “We don’t like it but we knew that when we put it on the tax bills. We knew we were limited. The way around it is to have a taxing district, which we have talked about for 15 years, and nobody is going to want a new tax. The taxing district would control the money, but the board could not tell the district how to spend the money. I know some people don’t want to pay $45 or $90 (the cost of the current tax) depending on how much property they have, but that’s going to be a whole lot cheaper than having a taxing district.”
The court and its board will continue to look into the issue as the fire protection association’s self-imposed deadline draws nearer. The next meeting of the Washington County Fiscal Court is scheduled for Monday, Dec. 13 at 9 a.m. at the Washington County Courthouse Annex. Judge Settles said there is a possibility of special-called meetings to deal with the issue in a timely manner, and announcements would be made about those meetings.