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Call 9-1-1 – The House is on Fire! …Or Burn, Baby, Burn!

Gene Cranick’s home burned to the ground last week while the local County Fire Department stood by and watched.  In addition to losing everything in his home, his grandchildren lost their pets – 3 dogs and 1 cat.

Why did the Fire Department stand back and watch?  Mr. Cranick forgot to pay his $75 opt-in fee for fire protection.  Even the offer to pay on scene was refused as the house was burning to the ground.

When the fire crept toward the neighbor’s yard (who was trying to help  by using a garden hose – and who had also offered to pay the fire department), they finally pulled out the hoses to water down the fence.

Much is coming form both sides of the political aisles on this – but no one seems to be addressing what I feel are some core issues.

Certainly, there are moral issues here.  Morally, it is reprehensible.  But let’s concentrate on the economic issues.

First off – most insurance policies cover up to a $500 fee for rural fire service – I know – I’ve had to use it a couple of times when I lived back in a rural Illinois County.

Below is the basic wording of these policies that are sold throughout the country:

Fire Department Service Charge
We will pay up to $500 for your liability assumed by contract or agreement for fire department charges incurred when the fire department is called to save or protect covered property from a Peril Insured Against. We do not cover fire department service charges if the property is located within the limits of the city, municipality or protection district furnishing the fire department response.  This coverage is additional insurance. No deductible applies to this coverage.

So why would the fire department refuse to put out the fire? Certainly they should know this coverage is normally provided.

The (somewhat) answer can be found in the March 18, 2008 report entitled:  The Obion County Fire Department

According to survey information, over 75% of all municipal fire department’s structure calls are rural. All fire departments in Obion County charge a $500.00 fee per call in rural areas, but collections are, less than 50% and the fire departments have no way of legally collecting the charge. Therefore, the service was provided at the expense of the municipal tax payer.

Somebody needs to learn how to fill out an invoice?

There’s no explanation why they were unable to collect these fees.  Or why the municipal code could not be changed to provide them a legal means of collection.  Having worked for an insurance company and having filed my own claims for these types of losses, there’s no reason these fees would not be paid (unless the policy did not provide the coverage).  Nor, is there an explanation as to why there was apparently no effort to change the codes to protect the collection of the fee, or if there was an effort, why it failed.

Additionally, insurance companies pay considerable taxes on their premiums which are used for various public services.  In Tennessee for example, a premium tax is paid to cover Fire Prevention

According to the Tennessee Department of Commerce and Insurance (note the section pertaining to training):

Fire Prevention – The commissioner of Commerce and Insurance also serves as the State Fire Marshal, and administers fire prevention programs through this division.
  • Administrative Services Section. This section coordinates public fire education efforts, administers the certification program for fire and building code inspectors, collects statewide fire data, and issues permits and licenses. 615-741-2981.
  • Bomb and Arson Section. As the law enforcement arm of the division, this section works with local, state, and federal law enforcement to investigate incidents of arson and criminal misuse of explosives. Persons with information about incendiary fires are urged to call the Arson Hotline at (800) 762-3017.
  • Codes Enforcement Section. This section reviews new construction plans and inspects schools, day care facilities, residential mental health and mental retardation facilities, propane gas dealerships, and fireworks. Blasting, modular buildings, manufactured homes, and recreational vehicles are regulated by this section. 615-741-7190.
  • Electrical Inspection Section. This section performs residential, commercial, and industrial electrical inspections of new and existing structures and assists local officials with large commercial and industrial installations. 615-741-7170.

The State of Tennessee Department of Commerce and Insurance collected the following premium tax for the Fire Marshall between the years 1999-2002 (I have been unable to find the most recent version of this report) that should have provided funding for training of firefighters, among other duties that are assigned to fire departments as noted above.

Premium Tax collected from 1999 -2002

Type

Fire Marshal                $7,281,254      $ 6,343,416     $ 6,031,148     $ 5,794,165

It turns out, however,  these funds were apparently NOT made available to Obion County Fire Department for training as well as considerable federal funding that would have been available to them had they created an “operational county fire department.”

From The Obion County Fire Department

Because there is no operational county fire department, Obion County has missed the opportunity to actively pursue receipt of FEMA Assistance to Firefighters Grants (AFG) and Community Development Block Grants (CDBG), which could amount to hundreds of thousands of dollars of funding. By taking the steps to make the county fire department operational, Obion County could apply for these grants to provide much needed equipment and funding for the existing fire departments and equip additional fire departments when the need arises. [Emphasis added.]

Even though most municipal fire departments in Obion County have benefited from AFG and CDBG grants to upgrade apparatus and equipment, each department must have operating funds to continue operations. Each individual municipality currently furnishes operating funds for their fire departments without assistance from the county or state. [Emphasis added.]  Federal, state and local mandates for training, apparatus, equipment and personnel are costing each fire department more money each year, and fire departments desperately need additional operating funds to stay caught up with these mandates.

Grant funds alone won’t fund the annual operating budget of a fire department. Annual appropriations from local sources are needed for additional operational funds to ensure our municipal fire departments remain organized in a manner to meet the current and future challenges of rural Obion County.

Oddly, the report states (without explanation):

Section 6

Resolution Establishing

Countywide Fire Department

for Obion County

January 19, 1987

Was there, in fact, a countrywide department established in 1987?  What did the resolution state?  Why has no one acted upon that resolution since 1987, since it was to establish a “Countywide Fire Department?”  Since they cite the statutes in Section 7 and they are seeking funding under Section 4 (see below), apparently this resolution was never enacted.

Under Section 3 – Assets – it’s somewhat confusing when it comes to this table.  The two headings are conflicting – one states “spending comparisons” and the other is “funding comparisons,” so it is unclear which “comparison” the data represents.

Fire Department / Emergency Mgt / Rescue Squad spending comparisons between neighboring counties

County Comparisons ~ Fire / EMA funding

Fire / EMA funding comparisons of neighboring counties in West Tn

Dollar figures from Tn Comptrollers Office ~ County Audits 2006/2007

County Name Year Fire Dept Funding EMA / Civil Def. Rescue Squad Other EMA TOTALS
OBION 2006 0.00 6,000.00 6,000.00 0.00 12,000.00
LAKE 2007 0.00 45,217.00 0.00 0.00 45,217.00
WEAKLEY 2006 19,500.00 207,495.00 5,500.00 5,461.00 237,956.00
DYER 2006 143,482.00 0.00 0.00 127,429.00 270,911.00
GIBSON 2007 122,987.00 126,023.00 0.00 72,489.00 321,499.00
HENRY 2006 430,343.00 0.00 4,800.00 216,386.00 651,529.00
CROCKETT 2007 52,939.00 129,845.00 7,000.00 9,918.00 199,702.00
CARROLL 2006 176,876.00 227,173.00 0.00 0.00 404,049.00
HAYWOOD 2007 295,595.00 46,784.00 6,500.00 0.00 348,879.00
LAUDERDALE 2007 25,179.00 302,511.00 5,000.00 56,160.00 388,850.00

When it comes to funding the department, there are several options provided:

Section 4

Funding Solution

For Obion County

Countywide Fire Protection

Possible Funding Solutions for Implementing Countywide F.D.

  1. Add a monthly fee to each light meter, residential and commercial, in rural areas of Obon County.
  2. Add a monthly fee to each light meter, residential and commercial, for the municipal and rural areas (all meters in county).
  3. Increase Property taxes to generate necessary funds needed to operate
  4. Enact a countywide subscription fee or fire tax to be billed by Obion County, collected by Obion County and disbursed to Municipal Fire Departments
  5. Appropriate Funds from existing county funds without increasing taxes or attaching a fee to electric meters
Example #1 ~ Out of town meters only
METER COUNT MO FEE MONTHLY REVENUE ANNUAL REVENUE
8308 3.00 24,924.00 299,088.00
8308 5.00 41,540.00 498,480.00
8308 6.00 49,848.00 598,176.00
Example #2 ~ All Electric Meters in Obion County

All meters in county (with exception of U.C.E.S. meters or from out of county)

METER COUNT MO FEE MONTHLY REVENUE ANNUAL REVENUE
10756 2.00 21,512.00 258,144.00
10756 3.00 32,268.00 387,216.00
10756 4.00 43,024.00 516,288.00
10756 5.00 53,780.00 645,360.00

Union City Electric System (UCES) Meters (within U.C. municipal limits)

6300

All meters in county (including all municipalities with UCES meters)

METER COUNT MO FEE MONTHLY REVENUE ANNUAL REVENUE
17056 2.00 34,112.00 409,344.00
17056 3.00 51,168.00 614,016.00
17056 4.00 68,224.00 818,688.00
17056 5.00 85,280.00 1,023,360.00
Example # 3 ~ Increase in property taxes or enact “fire tax”

.13 cent increase would equal——-> $546,000.00

Example # 4 ~ Countywide subscription service [this is the option they apparently chose]

This scenario would charge every structure in the “county”, not in municipal boundaries, a subscription fee annually. The county would be responsible for charging and collecting this fee and disbursing the funds to each F.D. as specified in the plan. The following figures are from the U.S. Census (2000)

$550,000.00 divided by 4734 equals $116.18 per household (not inc comm)

Interestingly, the fee as reported by the media is $75.00, making the total collected $ $355,050, rather than $550,000.  Using the meter (out of town) they would only have needed to collect $42.74 annually or $3.56 per month (rounded up).

Note, the report states, “Example #4 is the least favorable method. Collection would still be an issue and the fire departments would have no recourse if a rural resident refused to pay the subscription. 

Example #5 ~ Appropriate money needed from current county funds

This scenario would simply pay the necessary funding for a county F.D.

from existing funds without raising taxes, adding to electric meters or

charging a subscription fee.

As we know, the least efficient way of obtaining funds was chosen.  And, therefore, as Mr Cranick forgot to pay his bill, his home was allowed to burn to the ground.

Rather than taking advantage of existing funding, the idea was apparently to put the burden directly on the homeowner to pay his/her own way, rather than share the burden as a community and take advantage of these state and federal funds…funding that would have undoubtedly considerably reduced the amount they would have needed to pay additionally under a county fire tax or increased property tax.

And by choosing the path they did, the home owner insurance premium taxes that provided some of this funding from the state – money the homeowner is ultimately paying – was not provided as a benefit to the homeowners in this county.

Laissezfire?  Thanks, but no thanks.

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2 comments. Leave a Reply

  1. Pingback: Call 9-1-1 – The House is on Fire! …Or Burn, Baby, Burn! | Online REL

  2. Anne Bryant

    Impressively detailed analysis, and just another sad example of complexity and inertia winning out over common sense.

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