Volunteer firefighters won't yield to city

By Emily Le Coz/NEMS Daily Journal

TUPELO – Property owners in Tupelo’s newly annexed areas will get both city and county fire protection – and will pay for both services – until the agencies reach an agreement.
Tupelo’s annexation became official Sunday, with some 1,250 properties entering the city limits and coming under the protection of the Tupelo Fire Department.
But the volunteer departments that had been serving those properties, located in six areas ringing the city, have refused to cede their rights over them.
Dispatchers at Lee County E911 now refer fire and medical emergency calls in those areas to both the Tupelo Fire Department and the volunteer department that still maintains jurisdiction, said E911 Director Paul Harkins.
As of Thursday afternoon, dispatchers had referred three medical calls to those areas but no fire calls.
“That’s fine with me,” said Tupelo Fire Chief Thomas Walker. “I feel we’ll arrive first.”
Lee County Fire Coordinator David Homan did not return a call for comment.
Fire protection was a contentious issue during the 2010 annexation trial in Lee County Chancery Court. The county and some of its fire protection districts had argued against the annexation because they had a right to serve the areas Tupelo wanted to take.
The state Supreme Court ultimately found Tupelo’s Fire Department better suited to serve the annexed areas, and it upheld the original decision granting annexation.
But while the ruling allows Tupelo to protect those areas, it doesn’t strip volunteer departments of their claim on them. Only the departments themselves can cede territory.
In some Mississippi counties, volunteer departments continue to serve areas a decade or more after annexation, said Ty Windham, superintendent of public protection for the Mississippi State Rating Bureau.
“They don’t want to turn it loose because they don’t want to lose funding for the fire department,” Windham said. “Most people don’t know it, that they’re paying for two” fire departments.
Lee County property owners pay 4 mills of tax for rural fire protection. That’s $40 for every $100,000 of taxable value.
People in the annexed areas will stop paying that tax if and when the volunteer departments cede their territories to the city. Otherwise, they’ll pay for both city and rural fire protection even though the city likely will be the first responder.
“The first one on the scene is in charge,” Windham said, “and probably nine times out of ten, the paid department will be there first because they’re ready to go.”
City taxes for newly annexed residents will be due starting January 2014.
County Administrator Sean Thompson said he hopes a deal can be reached by then.
emily.lecoz@journalinc.com