Lee County residents to vote on doubling annual fire fee

SMITHS STATION, Ala. — Volunteer firefighters have broached a topic more combustible here than many blazes they battle: raising their annual service fee. But as voters in rural Lee County head to the polls Tuesday, fire officials have cast this special election as far more than a proposed increase from $25 to $50 a year.

It’s a referendum, they say, on whether communities like Smiths Station, Ala., will continue to have fire protection after their current fee assessment expires next year. Instead of seeking a renewal of the annual $25 fee they’ve received from households since 1989, firefighters said doubling the rate is needed to account for exponential increases in fuel and equipment costs over the years.

If the ballot measure fails, Smiths Station Fire & Rescue could eventually shutter its stations or drastically reduce services, unless the department can find additional revenues, officials said.

Anything resembling a new tax can be a hard sell in East Alabama, and voters rejected an earlier attempt, in 2006, to hike the fee. In Smiths Station, the election also comes as the department is recovering from an embezzlement scandal that bruised its reputation.

But some voters said the consequences of losing fire protection — from safety concerns to increases in homeowners insurance — warrant a close look at the proposal.

“Most people who come from an urban area are so used to having city services, but we do not have that luxury,” said Ingrid James, 64, an area resident who plans to vote in favor of the increase. “There’s got to be a way to have those services or something comparable to it where we live.”

In public meetings and a marketing blitz, firefighters have listed a series of cost increases that have burdened their budget since current funding went into effect in 1989. Diesel, for instance, has jumped some 681 percent, while protective gear increased about 170 percent, they said. Last year, Smiths Station firefighters responded to 241 fire calls and about 1,487 “rescue incidents,” for an average of fivecalls a day.

Tuesday’s measure would allow volunteers to be paid in the future, but no plans are in place to compensate them yet, said Capt. Daniel Sexton.

“It is a 100 percent increase, but as you can see, our costs have been up far more than 100 percent in every category,” Sexton said at a presentation Thursday evening. “The fire departments are the only agencies in Lee County that have the Jaws of Life and the training to use them. So if the fire departments were to go away, there really wouldn’t be anyone left to come and cut you or your loved one, your son or your daughter, out of a car that had been in a really bad car wreck.”

Internal Revenue Service reports between 2008 and September 2010 offer a less dire portrayal of the Smiths Station department’s finances. In all three of those years, the department finished with some wiggleroom assessing its current $25 a year rate.

In 2009, for instance, the department was roughly $70,000 in the black, an amount equal to about 27 percent of the fire fees it took in that year. Expenditures decreased about 12 percent during that time,the filings show.

But as the current fees are set to expire in 2013, county volunteer fire departments would be in danger of losing almost all of their revenue base if Tuesday’s vote fails. If approved, the increased fee would be in effect until 2036 and couldn’t be increased again without voter approval, said Bill English, chairman of the Lee County Commission.

English has projected a low turnout — between 5 and 10 percent — because the ballot contains one question that applies to only a fraction of the electorate.

About 27,700 registered voters outside Auburn, Opelika and Phenix City are eligible to vote. The measure will pass or fail by district, meaning Smiths Station could adopt the increase and Salem reject it, as it did the original fee in 1989. (Salem later passed its fire fee in 2001 and, like Smiths Station, rejected a graduated increase proposed in 2006.)

“The departments have done, in my opinion, a good job of conveying to the citizens the message of here’s why this is in your best interest,” English said. “I think when they tried in ’06, they stressed why they needed it, and this time they are stressing why it’s good for the citizen.”

Other districts voting Tuesday are Beauregard, Southwest Lee County, Farmville and Plainview/Oak Bowery. English estimated the special election to cost between $30,000 and $40,000; the legislation that authorized the vote allows the county to be reimbursed through fire fees, but county commissioners have already declined to do so.

The special election has been delayed because of an unexpected hiccup in federal preclearance, a process required in Alabama under the Voting Rights Act. English said the Justice Department denied an election request after it found no record of the original 1989 measure being precleared. That act and the current ballot wording since have been precleared, English said, but not in time to have been included on the March primary ballot.

If voters approve the increase, county officials will scramble to levy the fee to meet deadlines this week for it to appear on property tax statements this year. “This has been as tight a time line as I’ve ever had to deal with involving an election,” English said.

While supporters say passing the fee is a “no brainer,” some have questioned the need for the increase. Community activist Barbara Jordan has been perhaps the most outspoken skeptic, but not because she’s categorically opposed to a higher rate, she said.

She doesn’t think Smiths Station Fire & Rescue has been transparent enough about its finances in the wake of a veteran firefighter, Angelia Curran, embezzling thousands of dollars in federal grant money. “Is everything so lax there that they don’t know where their money is going?” Jordan said in an interview.

Curran, the former deputy chief, was sentenced in January to five years probation and six months home confinement after pleading guilty in U.S. District Court. She also was ordered to pay more than $28,000restitution.

The case damaged the department’s image but also hurt its ability to receive federal funds for equipment and training because Curran served as the department’s grant writer, Sexton said. Since her departure,the department has made a number of changes, seeking to control the flames of controversy.Internally, it has done major restructuring and has a new chief, deputy chief and officers. In January, the board voted to change the department’s name from Friendship Volunteer Fire Department to SmithsStation Fire & Rescue.

“We just want to move past it,” Sexton said of the Curran case. “But it is a battle.”