To the Editor:
This month’s Operations Committee meeting included discussion on a proposed resolution that would disqualify any fee- or membership-based fire department from participating in Anderson County’s annual appropriations plan for major asset purchases. Under the current agreement, property taxes fund equipment purchases for both the municipal and volunteer fire departments on a yearly rotational basis.
According to current state statutes, local governments have only two options available to fund or contribute to the county fire departments. Either a county fire district is established, whereby a separate account is created (for funding purposes), which allows for oversight and accountability, or the source of funding is limited to a donation which allows little input from the legislative body.
Under the current Anderson County agreement, county government donates funds to purchase major equipment assets. The various municipal and volunteer fire departments are responsible to acquire funding for their day-to-day operational costs. Municipal fire department funding is derived from the incorporated city taxes and the volunteers from fundraising.
Due to increased federal and state regulations and current skyrocketing costs, the financial burden on volunteer fire departments has resulted in many looking to implement a similar model of consistent funding like that of the municipal departments.
However, volunteer fire departments who only service the unincorporated areas of the county cannot levy a tax. The only option that is permissible by state law is to establish a membership- or fee-based system to provide for a stable funding source—or risk the possibility of going out of business.
The membership-based system also relieves the volunteer firefighter from fundraising responsibilities, which increases emphasis on training and certifications—the result of which lowers the county’s ISO rating and reduces county resident insurance premiums.
Surprisingly however, the county’s proposed resolution stipulates—the only source of funding for day-to-day operational costs for both municipal and volunteer fire departments must be derived from taxes collected by a county or municipal legislative body. This plan will clearly harm and possibly bankrupt many volunteer fire departments.
“WHEREAS, fire departments receiving an annual appropriation under the terms of this Resolution shall not charge for their services other than governmental taxing authority approved by the local county or municipal legislative body or Tennessee General Assembly. Fire departments who privately charge Anderson County citizens for emergency service responses are unable to receive a county donation for the purchase of new fire truck, rescue vehicle or other vehicle apparatus;” (See page 9 of 11)
I addressed these issues and conveyed my concerns to the members of Operations Committee this past Monday night. I made clear that a tax-based funding requirement serves no purpose other than to punish. In addition, a model resolution to establish a county fire district was furnished to the committee.
I believe Anderson County has done an exceptional job in developing and managing its primary assets: schools, roads, police, and fire. However, fundamental change must be addressed regarding a modernized and unified county-wide fire and emergency response system that meets and fulfills our future needs.
My recommendations are to establish a county fire district under the current tax rate by using the available funds in the existing appropriations plan. Then, over a period of three to five years, county leadership will find balanced solution to properly fund the schools, roads, police, and fire departments.