By Robbie Ward
TUPELO – City residents annexed in 2012 may see two charges for fire protection when they open their tax bills in less than a month.
Property owners living in seven of the 17 volunteer fire departments in Lee County, which are now city of Tupelo residents, face paying taxes for services from the Tupelo Fire Department and the volunteer fire department covering their property.
Each five-member commission that governs volunteer fire departments must vote to remove the 4 mills assessed to property owners before taxation stops for county residents with a volunteer fire department. None have voted to release the taxes, which ranges from 49 percent to 1.6 percent of a VFD’s annual budget.
Billy Scott, whose home near the Big Oaks Golf Course was annexed into the city, said he didn’t want to become a city resident and was pleased with county services he’d received. He called City Hall and the Board of Supervisors last week trying to get answers to concerns about paying taxes to a volunteer fire department and the Tupelo Fire Department and still worries about it.
“I don’t know anybody breathing who likes to be taxed twice for the same thing,” he said.
When the city of Tupelo annexed parts of Lee County in 1989, the city provided one-time “concession” payments to affected volunteer fire departments, who then halted taxes for the new residents.
For more than a year now, the Lee County Board of Supervisors have requested a response from the city of Tupelo on similar payments to volunteer fire departments for the most recent annexation and has received no response.
No court or other legal obligation requires the city of Tupelo to make payments to the volunteer fire departments or for volunteer fire departments from releasing taxes assessed to residents in their districts. The city’s current budget does not allocate any payments to county fire departments.
At this point, it’s not clear how much the seven volunteer fire departments would request from the city of Tupelo.
Lee County Administrator Sean Thompson said time is running out for volunteer fire department commissions to release taxes assessed for fire protection for the 2013 taxes that will be due Feb. 1. He said the changes are necessary before he begins printing tax receipts next month.
However, before the volunteer fire departments release annexed property owners from paying taxes, Thompson said the county would like to have an agreement for the city of Tupelo to make one-time payments to the VFDs.
“We’ve tried to reach out to the mayor to get it settled,” Thompson said.
Tupelo Mayor Jason Shelton, who represented the town of Plantersville during the Tupelo annexation trial, said last week said he “didn’t have all of the facts and it will be something that will be worked out in the future.”
Altogether, volunteer fire departments impacted with the release of 4 mills will lose about $63,000 annually, with the largest loses at Unity and Belden volunteer fire departments, which will lose $28,691 and $23,606, respectively, which amounts to 49 percent and 43 percent of the departments’ total budgets.
For some of the volunteer fire departments, the budget reduction shouldn’t be a problem because there is less territory to cover. Some of the fire departments, not anticipating the annexation, made significant purchases with the anticipated tax revenue.
In 2006, before the annexation discussion began, Belden Volunteer Fire Department financed the purchase of a fire truck and still owes $46,000 on the truck.
Rex Haygood, president of the Belden VFD commission, said no longer receiving taxes from annexed property owners would still allow the department to pay off the truck. However, finding funding for future needs of the department will be a challenge.
“We’ve ended up holding the bag on this annexation deal,” Haygood said.
Tupelo City Council member Buddy Palmer, who represents Ward 5, the part of the city that absorbed the greatest number of residents, is among the city of Tupelo’s newest residents. He said he empathizes with the situation of the volunteer fire departments and will meet with city department heads to discuss the situation.
Palmer said he will request the City Council place this issue on a study agenda as soon as possible.
“I am confident that a fair method can be worked out,” he said.