June 23, 2010
A lack of funding for equipment and training have prompted volunteer fire squads in Pettis and Saline counties to put the organization of fire protection taxing districts before area voters.
A plan to create a district that would cover the communities of Sweet Springs and Blackburn in Saline County, as well as portions of Blackwater Township in Pettis County, will go before voters on Aug. 3. The measure, organized by Sweet Springs Mayor Ray Kinney, will seek a property tax levy of 30 cents per $100 of valuation to support upgrades for equipment.
Voters also will vote on members for the five-seat board of directors for the fire district. Because the measure was approved after the candidate filing deadline, all board members will run as certified write-in candidates. The last day to file as a candidate for a seat on the board is July 23. Only votes for certified write-in candidates are counted, and the measure will only apply to Pettis County voters who reside in Blackwater Township.
Similar moves are also under way for tax-supported fire protection districts that would cover areas around La Monte and Hughesville. Those measures are expected to go before voters in November.
Kinney told The Democrat that the district would incorporate existing volunteer associations that are currently funded though membership dues. If the measure is approved by voters, the board of directors will determine how the groups are organized and will likely name a chief to oversee operations.
“We have Sweet Springs and rural areas in the district. It will cover about the same area as the ambulance district already operated out of Sweet Springs. About 80 percent of calls for service come from outside the city limits, so we decided it made more sense to have a district than a city-only tax so the burden was spread out more and it was more equitable,” Kinney said.
He said the squad in Blackburn struggled to support operations based only on association dues, and had experienced equipment failures while responding to fires.
“They will still have the same fire house and their captains will remain the same. Once the district is formed, the board will nail down the guidelines. This will give us the resources to upgrade equipment and improve services and response time.”
Kinney said the people in the district would have “no longer than a 10-minute response time.”
Russell Kruse, a Concordia attorney who is helping with the measure, said the districts also would mean reduced insurance premiums for people in the district.
Kruse said the levy would raise between $120,000 and $130,000 a year.
“Feedback so far has been very supportive. We didn’t ram this down anyone’s throat. We talked to the fire departments in the region. The firemen know their communities and most of the people we talked to thought this was the best way to move forward,” Kruse said.
Sedalia attorney Daniel Baker is handling petition drives for proposed districts in La Monte and Hughesville. The La Monte district has gathered the 100 signatures and will go before Division 4 of the 18th Circuit Court at 1:30 p.m. July 12 in Pettis County. The Hughesville district is still collecting signatures.
“At the hearing, the court will consider the initial petition and any protesting petitions and will decide whether to incorporate the fire protection district. If the judge rules that a fire protection district should be incorporated, he will order that an election will take place to vote on whether the district should be incorporated, and if so, to select the first board of directors,” Baker said.
He said the La Monte district would supplement, rather than replace, existing associations.
“This district will take over the existing volunteer services and associations. I would expect that the same people would serve in much of the same capacity as they have, but they will now have a tax base,” Baker said.
Baker said the proposed Hughesville district “will be independent of the Western Pettis County district (in La Monte), although there is nothing from stopping these two districts from entering into mutual aid agreements.”
Sedalia resident Vincent Phang — formerly of La Monte — has helped with the petition drive for the district there. He said feedback has been positive in the area and the group was able to gather its 100 signatures for the petition in two days.
“Right now, the La Monte district is operating on membership dues. It is optional for people if they want to be part of the membership and the income fluctuates,” Phang said.
Phang said membership dues are $25 a year in La Monte, and the taxing district likely would mean lower payments by residents in La Monte and portions of rural Western Pettis County, along with improved service and response time.
“La Monte is strictly volunteers, and we expect it to remain a volunteer department with the district, but we will be able to offer better training and more incentive for them,” Phang said.