Most of Lee under volunteer protection

By Emily Le Coz/NEMS Daily Journal

TUPELO – When Tupelo annexed 1,250 households this month, it cut into the territories of several volunteer fire districts that face mild to severe funding cuts as a result.
All of Lee County, with the exception of Tupelo, falls under the protection of one of 17 volunteer fire departments. Unlike professional departments with paid staff, volunteer agencies rely on “preachers to school teachers to truck drivers to business people to kids out of high school” to fight fires, said David Homan, who serves as Lee County’s fire coordinator and the chief of the Shannon Volunteer Fire Department.
Most receive the bulk of their operating revenue from a modest property tax levied on the households they protect.
When volunteer districts lose households – as in the case of an annexation – they lose tax dollars. As a result, they have fewer funds with which to protect the remainder of their territories.
Some fire districts will feel a sight financial pinch if and when they cede a portion of their territories to Tupelo, but others could lose a majority of their funding.
“Unity will lose over half their tax dollars but will only lose 10 percent of the land they’re supposed to protect,” said Homan. “Unity loses Big Oaks and Indian Hills and your more affluent subdivisions.”
Located in the northeastern part of the county, the Unity Fire Protection District covers 1,423 structures and 3,478 people.
Its annual tax allocation this coming fiscal year is projected at $57,415. That’s $40 per household now versus a projected $22 per household or less afterward.
But neither Unity nor the other fire protection districts affected by Tupelo’s annexation have yet ceded any parts of their territories. Until they do, they remain responsible for those areas and can continue collecting taxes.
In the meantime, the Tupelo Fire Department also claims responsibility for those areas and already has been responding to calls there. The city, too, will begin taxing those residents for municipal services – including fire protection – starting January 2014.
If the volunteer districts don’t relinquish the annexed parts of their territories, affected residents will be double taxed.
“Each district has a five-person board of commissioners, and it’s up to each board to negotiate with Tupelo,” Homan said, adding that he’s unaware of any discussion on the matter within those groups.
If and when the commissions reach deals with the city, the county will stop taxing residents in the affected areas, said Lee County Administrator Sean Thompson.
“I can only tax on their boundaries,” Thompson said. “If they change their boundaries, that changes how we tax.”
Lee County anticipates collecting and distributing a total of $536,038 in fire tax revenues this coming fiscal year.
The tax applies only to rural households with the proceeds benefiting the districts that protect them. Some volunteer fire departments like Cedar Hill and Birmingham Ridge get tens of thousands of tax dollars because their territories include numerous rural households.
City-based volunteer departments like Nettleton and Plantersville get just a couple hundred dollars in taxes because they protect only small regions outside their principal cities.
Guntown and Baldwyn get no county tax funds because neither department goes outside their municipal limits.
Most city-based departments get funds from their respective municipalities, said David Wood, chief of the all-volunteer Guntown Fire Department. All departments also get insurance rebate money that comes from a tax on fire insurance policies.
“It’s still a shoestring budget,” Wood said.
Some 400 unpaid, volunteer firefighters protect more than 48,000 residents in Lee County. Most have regular jobs and carry pagers that buzz in case of an emergency.
Those who can respond, race to the fire station and don the same protective gear worn by professionals.
Then they dash to the emergency as a coordinated unit. It’s rare when a full crew fails to arrive, Homan said.
Because most rural areas lack fire hydrants, volunteer departments drive engines with vast reserves of water – 3,000 to 5,000 gallons – they can use to douse the flames.
Few requirements exist to become a volunteer firefighter. One must be 18 years old and attend monthly meetings. One also must win the vote of potential peers. Outside training isn’t required but is recommended, Homan said.
Together, these volunteers respond to an average 6,000 calls per year, Wood said. Most are fires and medical emergencies. Some involve major traffic accidents.
“I’ve been doing this since the early ’70s,” Wood said. “You help a few people along. You do some good occasionally. It’s worth it.”
emily.lecoz@journalinc.com