By Emily LeCoz/NEMS Daily Journal
TUPELO – What was denounced as a major flaw in Tupelo’s annexation plan, oddly, was hailed as a legal right in the growth bid of Horn Lake.
In both instances, even though the positions are polar opposite, it was the same man who did the arguing – Jackson-based attorney Chad Mask.
Mask represents Lee County in its opposition of Tupelo’s annexation attempt, which seeks 16.15 square miles of unincoporated land.
But he also represents Horn Lake in its bid to annex 9.1 square miles of unincorporated land. Horn Lake’s move was opposed by the town of Walls, which had its own plans to annex some of the same areas.
Tupelo’s case hasn’t yet been decided; trial began in Lee County Chancery Court on March 29 and likely won’t conclude until June. Judge Edward C. Prisock will make the final call.
The cases of Horn Lake and Walls ended in early 2009, with the judge denying both annexations. Horn Lake now is appealing to the state Supreme Court.
In both the Tupelo and the Horn Lake cases, Mask discussed fire protection districts. A fire protection district is a statutorily created entity that provides fire-fighting services in a designated area outside a city’s limits.
Lee County has six such districts, each staffed by volunteer firefighters. All of them are responsible for different portions of the areas Tupelo wants to annex.
If the annexation succeeds, city officials said the Tupelo Fire Department will become reponsible for protecting those areas.
Not necessarily so, said Mask. He argued that if fire districts want to continue their service, state law grants them sole power to do so. And at least three districts – Belden, Palmetto-Union and Unity – have indicated their desire to keep operating.
“A fire district may cede its jurisdiction over areas annexed by a municipality when the municipality is able to provide services,” Mask said Monday in court. But “unless an area is ceded, the district continues to have the sole authority to provide fire protection to those areas.”
In that case, Tupelo would have no right to respond to fires in those areas even after annexation, he suggested. And if lesser-ranked fire departments continue to operate inside the city limits, it might worsen Tupelo’s own Class 5 fire insurance rating, he said.
Mask pressed the issue three times with three different witnesses on three different days. Each time, he insisted the situation spelled trouble.
Yet, in a brief filed on behalf of Horn Lake in the state Supreme Court, Mask argued the exact opposite.
“It is undisputed that Mississippi Code Ann. 19-5-151 et seq. does not prohibit a municipality from annexing territory located within the legal boundaries of a fire protection district,” Mask wrote in the brief, filed March 15.
“The Attorney General has opined that a municipality may annex into a statutorily created fire protection district, and the fire protection district is authorized to cede its jurisdiction as first response fire protection provider to the annexing municipality when the municipality is ready, willing and able to take over the provision of fire protection to its newly annexed territory,” Mask wrote. “The city of Horn Lake stands ready, willing, and able to take over fire protection in the proposed annexation area. … If annexed into the city limits, the city of Horn Lake has the statutory duty and right to provide fire protection into the newly annexed territory just as it does in all other ares within the city.”
Mask declined to comment on the contradiction, saying he doesn’t speak about ongoing cases. Tupelo attorney Guy Mitchell also declined to comment.
In either scenario – with or without annexation – it’s the E911 dispatch center that determines which fire department responses to a blaze. Tupelo Police Chief Thomas Walker said if his department gets dispatched, they go. If not, they don’t.
Lee County E911 Director Paul Harkins was not immediately available to comment on this story. In a previous interview, though, he said dispatchers alert the Tupelo Fire Department if a blaze occurs within the city limits. If it’s outside Tupelo, they notify the volunteer fire department in whose district the fire occurs.
In court Tuesday, Walker said he doubts that practice will change after annexation.
“I cannot imagine a scenario,” he testified, “where E911 would not dispatch the Tupelo Fire Department to fight a fire within the city limits.”
Contact Emily Le Coz at (662) 678-1588 or firstname.lastname@example.org.