Dandridge Facing Fire Dilemma – Town Takes Hard Look At Options
Questions regarding funding for the Dandridge Volunteer Fire Department were the focus of an extended Work Session for the Board of Mayor and Aldermen. The Town of Dandridge is in the budget process and looking for options regarding fire department funding that might be more palatable in light of equipment upgrades that will be necessary in the next few fiscal cycles. At the center of the discussion regarding funding is the number of County calls, which are outside the city limits of Dandridge, that are answered by the Dandridge Volunteer Fire Department. While the Dandridge Volunteer Fire Department covers around 24,900 citizens, 47% of the total County population, there are only 2,900 residents that live inside the city proper and not all of those pay property tax. According to information provided by the Jefferson County Trustee’s Office, 2077 real and personal property tax notices went out inside of the Town of Dandridge for the year 2016. The Town of Dandridge is expected to fund 61% of the total budget for the Dandridge Volunteer Fire Department in the 2017 fiscal year.
Town Administrator Peagler and Dandridge Volunteer Fire Department Fire Chief Riley addressed the Board of Mayor and Aldermen. Peagler and BMA representative Alderwoman Reese presented four options of funding structure, including pros and cons of each option, to the Board. Available funding options included requesting an increase in the County contribution of funding which would allow the current operations of the department to continue as they are currently operating, with the challenge being lack of control over the funding decision and the possibility of losing funding from year to year. It was also noted that a request for additional funding has been made for several budget cycles to the Jefferson County Commission but no further funding has been appropriated. Two other options would require a consensus of the Jefferson County Commission to be instituted. The creation of a County wide Fire Department via a Fire Tax District and funded by a fire tax would eliminate the need for additional fire service inside the city but would be the decision of the County Commission. Another possibility was the addition of a fire fee, which would be charged like a utility or subscription service but it would require the County Commission to pass a resolution placing the authority to exercise the collection with an established entity or the creation of a public works department. The fourth option would be a City Only Fire Department. This option would eliminate much of the wear and tear on equipment but would be the most pricey and would impact County residents that depend on service from the Dandridge Volunteer Fire Department. A phase in approach is possible, which would lessen the immediate financial impact and allow the County time to replace the lost service to residents in the greater Dandridge area. Town Administrator Peagler offered the City Only option as only one of several that were presented to the BMA and has made it clear that it is not the recommendation from Town administration stating “ We do not recommend going to the City Only option. It was simply a small part of a total presentation and we owed it to our citizens to consider the possibilities. After getting the information it became clear that the City Only option was not the most viable for the Town and it is not our recommendation.”
Fire Chief Riley spoke against a phase in approach to a City Only Fire Department that includes hiring a full time fire chief. He stated that the department is short volunteers for night calls and would better benefit from full time fire fighters to bridge the gap in coverage from the volunteer fire fighter. Riley agreed with the assessment that the County portion of calls far outweighs what can be funded by the city alone. Currently the County provides $55,000 in funding to every fire department in the County with no consideration to call volume. Information provided to the Board states that there are approximately 150 calls inside the city limits of Dandridge and more than 500 calls outside the city limits, meaning that the in city calls only represent 30% of the total calls answered by the Dandridge Volunteer Fire Department and around 70% are outside the city limits.
For several budget cycles Jefferson County Commission has struggled to find a formula that reflects an equitable split in funding allocations for fire departments. In the current fiscal year 8 departments receive $55,000 and New Market Volunteer Fire Department receives $55,000 for their main station and $25,000 for a sub station. The total County contribution for fire departments is $520,000 which, when averaged among County tax payers, totals $15 per County tax payer. In fiscal year 2016, city tax payers in Dandridge paid $139.82 for fire service, which is $124 more than their neighbors living just beyond the city limits though both receive the same service from the Dandridge Volunteer Fire Department.
The Jefferson County Budget Committee has referred the question of fire department funding to the Public Service Committee for review. In past discussions, questions regarding a per call payment for fire fighters on the DVF has been a sticking point for some Commissioners. Town of Dandridge officials contend that the incentive is minimal considering the number of calls that the department answers on an annual basis and, at $12 per city call and $5 per county call, is more a token to off set the cost of answering calls and encourage participation in the volunteer department. Insurance recovery has also been a cause of concern for some County Commissioner. While there are occasionally large incidents that could result in higher recovery, the 2016 insurance recovery at $20,000 is actually less than 5% of the operating budget.
No decisions were made at the Board of Mayor and Aldermen Work Shop and they are expected to make their case to the Public Service Committee for their input on what has become a questions of lines, with those living on the city side of the Dandridge city limits sign paying more than nine times as much for fire service as their rural counterparts. Dandridge Mayor George Gantte said “ We cannot keep going to our city residents, expecting them to pay for fire service for almost half of Jefferson County. It is our hope that the County Commission will find a way to help off set the cost of fire service outside the city limits. Dandridge has a small number of tax payers compared to the County and we ( Board of Mayor and Aldermen) just can’t keep asking them to pay more than their fair share. Remember that our city tax payers are also county tax payers. This really is everyone’s problem.”