Fire Tax?

Commissioners set to consider fire protection alternatives

Mary E. Hinds News Herald

Mike Collins, chairman of the Loudon County Volunteer Fire Service Study Committee, addressed the county commission workshop Monday night to report on the fire service available in the county today and to recommend steps to make it better. 

The committee was formed in 2009 in the face of withdrawal of Rural Metro from the county - a move that some homeowners said forced their insurance rates up. Districts 5 and 6 were the most effected by the loss of Rural Metro services and the committee included three people from each of those districts. Their goal is to resolve the problem of adequate coverage without impacting the county budget. 

Collins summarized the current situation namely that the whole of Loudon County, excluding the full time, paid departments in Loudon and Lenoir City, is primarily covered by three volunteer fire departments -- the Tellico Village Volunteer Fire Department (primarily District 7), the Greenback Volunteer Fire Department (primarily District 3) and Loudon County Fire and Rescue (LCFR) which serves the balance of the county. 

According to Collins, the focus of the committee's recommendations is on LCFR because the two other volunteer departments "are better funded and supported than LCFR."  

The report noted LCFR operates five stations in the county and is an independent organization with no direct affiliation to county government. LCFR maintains an all-volunteer force averaging 50 people with no paid support staff. "We have no issues with Loudon County Fire and Rescue," Collins said Monday night adding that LCRF does a lot of good with limited resources. 

Collins further outlined the committee's findings noting response time in the county is well below the state and national averages. Collins said the key problems are no manned stations during the day, travel distances from a station are too long, there is no administrative support and no one is responsibile for managing day-to-day operations. He also mentioned the difficulty LCFR has doing any long range planning because the organization is funded by donations that fluctuate year to year. 

The committee recommendations to fix the problems are primarily for the 5th and 6th Districts but could be implemented county wide. They recommend hiring one on-site, daytime fireman at both the Martel and Eaton's Crossroads stations - 12-hour shifts, 365 days per year; improvements at each station to accommodate daytime personnel; hiring a full time department administrator and re-apportioning LCFR's existing budget to allow long term equipment updates and purchases. 

The committee acknowledged there would need to be an increase in funding to pay for these recommendations. They identified two options - a Fire Tax District or a Fire Utility District. 

In a Fire Tax District an additional estimated property tax of 5 cents would be levied with an incremental impact. For example a property valued at $100,000 would be charged an additional $12.50 annually, a $250,000 property would pay an additional $31.50 annually and a property valued at $500,000 would pay an additional $62.50 per year. Implementing a Fire Tax District requires the commission's approval and 30 days notice to affected property owners. This assumes the county's annual contribution to LCFR continues. 

A Fire Utility District is funded by subscription and fire and rescue operations operate as an independent utility. It requires the authorization of the county mayor, the appointment of a three member Fire Utility Board and public hearings. This model requires start up capital and greater administrative support. 

The point in upgrading fire and rescue services in the county is to give property owners a shot at lower insurance rates. Collins explained insurance companies set fire insurance rates with an Insurance Service Office (IS0) rating of fire protection related factors. ISO ratings are on a 10 point scale with a "1" being the best and a "10" being the equivalent of having no fire protection at all. Loudon County generally rates between 7 and 9 as the rate varies across LCFR's coverage area depending on distances, water availability, response times, manpower, and equipment. The committee members sais they feel if the recommendations are followed, particularly daytime manned stations and the addition of a fire administrator, the ISO rating will improve for many county residents who may be able pay less for fire insurance. Collins estimates a potential savings to property owners of between $100 to $500 per year depending on the value of their property. "The fire protection problem is very serious and growing," Collins told the commissioners adding that it is fixable. He also warned them of the potential liability the county faces if someone dies in a fire due to inadequate fire protection services. He characterized the cost to taxpayers as minimal in light of potential insurance savings and decreased liability for the county. 

The committee acknowledged they have neither the expertise or the power to implement a plan. Collins said the next step would be for the county to appoint an Implementation Task Force comprised of elected and professional personnel to implement operational details of the plan. 

The county commission will consider the matter at the Feb. 1 County Commission regular meeting scheduled for 6 p.m. at the Courthouse Annex in Loudon.