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Mt. Juliet's peer cities provide their own fire protection
Nov 28, 2005 12:00 am
November 26, 2005
As Mt. Juliet juggles to accommodate a swelling population brought on by unprecedented retail and residential growth, a debate about whether city government should provide fire service to its residents has become a political football.
Presently, the city has no fire department of its own and relies on Wilson County government's fire service – including some fire stations located outside the city limits – for fire protection. Wilson County government leaders maintain that given Mt. Juliet's staggering growth the city should take on its own fire protection.
City leaders maintain the county should stick to an agreement from the 1980s where county government agreed to provide "countywide" fire service for all residents including Mt. Juliet. Mt. Juliet Mayor Linda Elam has also pushed for a new county-financed and staffed fire station in the sprawling Providence development.
A survey of other Tennessee cities in high growth areas with populations similar to Mt. Juliet's demonstrates through municipal funding and forms of privatization many of Mt. Juliet's peer municipal governments in the state provide residents with city fire protection.
'A Matter of Responsibility'
An investigation of cities in Tennessee with populations comparable to Mt. Juliet reveals different approaches to providing city fire service independent from county governments.
Information provided to the Mt. Juliet News by the University of Tennessee's Municipal Technical Advisory Service (MTAS) shows cities with populations near Mt. Juliet's 17,500 residents in five fast-growing Tennessee counties provide city fire service through various funding mechanisms.
Two peer cities are similar to Mt. Juliet and have a zero property tax rate while three other cities' property tax rates range from 50 cents per $100 accessed value to $1.47. The cities' geographic areas – square miles to protect – also encompass regions similar in size to Mt. Juliet's 20 square miles.
The City of Spring Hill which straddles Maury and Williamson County lines is a growing area with a current population of 17,325. Until 2002, Spring Hill was protected by a volunteer fire department. Spring Hill City Manager Ken York said growth and a slow call response time forced the city to step up to fund its own fire department. The ISO rating – which serves as the basis for homeowner and commercial property and casualty insurance rates – under the volunteer system was 10. It's now a 7.
"The decision was based on need," York said. "We had phenomenal growth. We fund fire service through general fund revenues."
The Spring Hill general fund budget is $4.9 million with $1,016,323 of that dedicated to fire service. The city has a zero property tax rate.
"Before, the response time was about eight minutes and now it's about three minutes," York said. "It was a matter of responsibility."
Shelbyville in Bedford County has a full-time fire department funded by the city. A property tax of $1.47 per $100 assessed value is charged to residents. They have two fire stations that cover 15.1 square miles. City Manger Ed Craig said the city is proud of a recent downgrade to a 3 ISO rating.
"We've worked hard to protect our citizens." Craig said, adding the city is ready to build another fire station.
Of Shelbyville's $11,186,000 general fund budget, over $2 million is dedicated for fire protection.
Ten years ago, Springfield in Robertson County with a current population of 16,000 began funding its own fire service. City Manager Paul Nutting said they have one fire station and are building a second. The property tax rate is $1 per $100 assessed value.
"Our area of coverage keeps expanding and with county service the people on the edge were not getting fast enough response time," Nutting said. "We are proud to fully fund our fire service."
The city's general fund budget is $14,142,641 with $1.9 million dedicated to fire service.
Peer city LaVergne in Rutherford County has found a unique way to fund its fire service. This city too has experienced exponential growth and contracts its fire service with the LaVergne Fire Department – a locally owned, private enterprise – for $1.2 million a year. LaVergne City Director of Finance Ralph Mullens said the method of fire service works for the city and has been in operation since the early 1970s.
According to city documents, the contract is calculated to be about $85 per house. Commercial property is calculated 2 cents per sprinkled square foot and $2.5 cents per unsprinkled square foot. This city's population is estimated to be 24,000 and is protected with an aerial ladder truck. Two fire stations are in the city and a third is under construction.
The Town of Farragut in Knox County has the same population as Mt. Juliet. City leaders said their unique way of providing fire service works well. They too have a high per capita income and a zero property tax rate. Residents subscribe to fire service, and if they are not members they will receive the same level of protection but will be billed for services rendered.
"I would encourage cities similar to our town examine this delivery of fire protection," Town Administrator Dan Olson said. "It is unique and cost effective for our citizens."
The subscription fire service is provided through private company Rural Metro and was enacted more than 30 years ago. Two fire stations are inside the city limits and manned 24 hours a day. Olson said about 90 percent of city residents subscribe at a rate calculated by square footage with an average annual rate under $300. Total cost to the city is $20,000 for a fire marshal position and $1,500 for fire protection of city buildings.
"Our citizens think of this service as a benefit for under $300 a year without feeling had," he said.
Mt. Juliet's current general fund budget is $9.3 million with $2.7 of that for transportation projects. The city has no city property tax, and no money in the budget is allocated for fire service.
The future of county government-financed fire service in Mt. Juliet as the city's first response to fire calls is uncertain, and has become a political football over the past year.
Recently, a group of Wilson County commissioners mainly from unincorporated areas of Wilson County came forward and publicly stated Mt. Juliet should provide its own fire service. The statements came after a committee of the County Commission voted not to purchase an aerial ladder truck for the Wilson Emergency Management Agency (WEMA) because the purchase was perceived to be largely for fire protection in Mt. Juliet's city limits.
Mt. Juliet Mayor Linda Elam said the Wilson County Commission passed a resolution in 1993 stating the county created a countywide fire department with the purpose of providing fire protection services to all of the county. She cites a 1995 report compiled by the Wilson Emergency Management Agency, MTAS and the County Technical Advisory Service that states "this method of service delivery is unique among Tennessee counties and is a very cost effective method of delivering these services."
Last week, Elam launched a blistering offensive replying to county officials in a letter defending the city's right to rely on the county for fire protection. The mayor defended the city's current fire protection arrangement and refers to a 19-year-old contract the city has with the county whereby the city traded fire equipment and a fire hall for county provided fire protection.
"We prefer to stick to the very efficient template established by the Wilson County Commission and WEMA," Elam penned. "And we expect the County Commission to stick by its earlier policy decision."
Calls to fire districts including Mt. Juliet over the past five years have accounted for 40 percent of WEMA's fire calls.
WEMA Director Jerry McFarland said Mt. Juliet touches eight of WEMA's 25 districts. According to a WEMA district report detailing calls of service from Jan. 1, 2000, to Oct. 31, 2005, the emergency agency responded to 3,759 fire calls with 1,559 in the districts touched by Mt. Juliet. This year, WEMA has responded to 200 fire calls in the Mt. Juliet district area.
According to a WEMA "Outlook 2004-2010" report, as of July 2004 Mt. Juliet planners listed 9,977 residential lots within the city and an additional 1,356 lots in areas outside the city but within the Mt. Juliet planning area. It predicts an additional 30,259 people when these lots build out. The Providence residential development in the next 15 years will bring 3,200 homes and Providence Marketplace will bring to the city almost one million square feet of retail space.
WEMA provides first-response fire service to all parts of the county except within the city limits of Lebanon and Watertown where fire service is provided by city and volunteer fire departments. WEMA responds to the cities on a mutual aid basis.
Currently seven WEMA fire stations are in the county.
Elam said in addition to providing equipment and a fire hall to WEMA under the decades-old contract for countywide fire service, the city has offered WEMA space to build another fire station.
"I have also obtained two acres of real estate on Belinda Parkway for use as a fire hall and a police substation," Elam said. "This will save the county taxpayers at least $500,000 on a new fire hall to serve the densely populated area south of the interstate, including Gladeville."
Elam noted the fire hall would serve much more county land than city land.
However, McFarland said last week WEMA has no intention of building a fire hall in the space, but rather plans to build the next station on Carthage Highway and then one in the Norene area.
"The property donated in Providence will not help cover fire protection in that area, the area is already within the boundaries of other stations' coverage," McFarland said. "The county has no interest in asking for money to build a station in Providence at this time. The ISO coverage is OK there."
Mt. Juliet Managing Editor Laurie Everett can be reached at 754-6397 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.