By NEMS Daily Journal
The viability of Lee County’s 17 volunteer fire departments and the 48,000 residents whose lives and property they protect makes resolution of disputed protection jurisdictions involving recently annexed areas of Tupelo a pressing issue – and it is resolvable if reasonable people sit down together and seek a meeting of minds.
Finding the common ground where minds meet may require extended discussion, but there’s no question that a way must be found for the volunteer departments to move forward with adequate financing to protect the people and property remaining in their protection districts.
The Lee County Board of Supervisors cannot act for the fire protection districts; they are governed by a board of commissioners for each. The commissioners are confirmed to staggered terms by the Board of Supervisors, but function with autonomy similar to a municipal school district, which can request the millage it needs up to a set amount, and the City Council, or Board of Supervisors in the case of fire districts, must comply.
The fire districts, under state law, have the “avails” of up to 4 mills, so the value of property within each protection district bears heavily on the amount of money each department receives for its work.
The volunteer firefighters aren’t paid, but equipment and buildings must be maintained.
Tupelo, on the other side, has the responsibility and the right to protect all the property within its corporate limits, even if the fire protection commissioners have not ceded protected property to the city’s fire department.
Down the road, property owners face double taxation for fire protection if an agreement is not reached. Tupelo’s general property tax pays for fire protection; there is no special city fire levy.
Tupelo, for the record, has responded to every fire call in the newly annexed areas, as it committed, and the assistance of volunteer fire departments has been welcomed.
Wherever they live, Tupelo and Lee County residents are all citizens of the same county. Resolving the issue equitably is about mutual benefit.
One meeting between leaders of the Tupelo Fire Department and the volunteer fire departments has been held, and others will be needed to reach an agreement.
Arriving at a mutually beneficial decision will be infinitely better than dragging out differences and hardening attitudes.
There is no greater or longer-term expression of volunteerism in U.S. history than volunteer fire service. Lee County has 400 volunteer firefighters, and 71 percent of all firefighters nationwide are volunteer.
Both volunteer and professional firefighters are essential, but full-time departments offer undeniable advantages in terms of fire ratings and in response time.