Silence fell among the crowded district courtroom as 15 or more radios went off at once. Firemen from every volunteer fire department in the county listened carefully to see if they must call their meeting short and respond to a call. Thankfully, there was not an emergency, but that is not always the case.
Talk of a countywide fire department subscription fee brought firemen, county residents and county leaders together on April 8. Bill Oxendine, Knox County PVA and Chief of Little Poplar Creek Fire Department, led the public forum discussing details of the subscription fee.
Over two weeks ago, Oxendine asked the Knox County Fiscal Court to entertain the idea of a subscription fee for all printable tax bills in the county. The fee, only $35 a year, is desperately needed to keep the county fire departments afloat. Since that time, the departments have attempted to gain the public’s support. The cost of running a department is not cheap and most departments survive on fundraising alone.
The state provides some funds but, as Oxendine explains, “What money we do have, we can only spend on certain things. None of that goes to our general funds. Everybody is facing severe shortfalls.”
Oxendine explained that the annual cost of running Little Poplar Creek Fire Department, the smallest department in the county, is anywhere from $20,000 to $22,000. The state only provides $8,250, money that can only be used on equipment. Departments used to receive coal severance funds, but that will end after this year. Nearly a third of Little Poplar Creek’s budget must go towards insurance alone for the trucks and the station. On top of that, the department must pay for fuel, utilities and equipment expenses after the state money runs out. And, considering it costs nearly $9,000 just to outfit a single fire fighter, the cost adds up quickly.
Financial hardship has forced the hand of the departments. In their opinion, this subscription fee is the best plan to keep the department doors open. It will provide a consistent flow to each department’s general funds. As specified in the ordinance, five percent of the department’s budget will be placed in a savings fund. This will allow the department to save for the purchase of expensive items.
“I feel like a lot of the smaller departments are three to four years behind on equipment,” said Scott Partin, Assistant Chief of Bailey Switch Fire Department. “So, if we’ve got that rainy day fund, we can start saving and build our equipment back up.”
The fee will apply to every property owner in the county excluding the Artemus Fire District, as there is already taxation in place. Each individual parcel of land will be subject to the $35 fee. Property within Barbourville and Corbin city limits are also exempt as they already pay a mandatory fee.
Money collected from the fee will go into one account, to be distributed among the eight county departments. The bigger the district and community a department covers, the larger the amount they will receive. Departments will be required to keep detailed records of how the money is spent.
“None of us wanted anything to do with this unless there is fiscal responsibly along with it,” said Oxendine. “I want to be held accountable. We don’t want to take anything that isn’t ours and we don’t want to waste anything.”
During the forum, there was only one issue that caused objection from the community. Due to KRS rules, any subscription fee must allow an opt-out option.
“I don’t think you would ever be able to get the funds,” exclaimed County Attorney Gilbert Holland, among roars of agreement from the crowd.
One Knox County resident agreed. “I don’t think it’s fair for us to pay this money and support our departments, but someone else opt-out and receive the same services,” said Sharon Mills.
There will, however, be consequences for opting-out. Once an individual signs a petition declining the subscription fee, their insurance company will be notified. The property owner could then face an increase in insurance rates. And, if the property owner ever needed assistance from the fire department, they could face charges from the department. If the charges were not paid, a lien would be placed on the property. According to the ordinance, ‘any non-paid dues shall bear the same penalties and interest as state and county taxes.’
The Fiscal Court called a special meeting Tuesday, April 12, to hold the first reading and make a decision about the ordinance. The motion passed unanimously.
“With everything that I understand about volunteer fire departments and their financial situations, I had no choice but to help them speak,” said Julio Cima, Magistrate for District Five. “They help us and we needed to help them.”
The ordinance will officially take place after the second reading from the Fiscal Court.
“I’m happy with the outcome. It’s been a long time coming,” Partin said. “Some departments, if they were about to close their doors, will be able to end the year on a positive note.”