Fair and Equitable

editorial-logo3It appears that we have some big changes that could be on the horizon for Jefferson County. Last week two municipalities, White Pine and Dandridge, put the County on notice that they can no longer financially support fire service outside their city limits and will be withdrawing from service to the County if Jefferson County will not increase its financial contribution to fire service for County residents. The move was not without provocation. Last Monday, the Public Service Committee, an arm of the County Commission that was charged with bringing a recommendation for equitable fire department funding, voted to recommend leaving funding at the current level of $55,000 per department. Despite the pleas of the Town of Dandridge and the City of White Pine for increased contribution to off set their growing expenses of providing fire service outside their city limits, it became clear that no additional funding was coming down the path. Comments made at the Public Service Committee meeting from the Chair of the Jefferson County Commission indicated that soon even the avenue of sub station funding, which had been denied to the Dandridge Volunteer Fire Department in previous budget cycles but had been extended to New Market, would be off the table. With little hope of securing any additional financial contribution from the County, Dandridge and White Pine city administrators and elected officials were faced with the prospect of, again, going to their property tax base for up coming equipment and general expense needs to service beyond their city limits. Both municipalities came to the difficult conclusion that it was irresponsible to ask such a limited tax base to pick up the tab for Jefferson County’s infrastructure, especially when the majority of the calls are outside the city limits. For White Pine, around 60% of their calls are in the County and for Dandridge the number is closer to 80%. Both White Pine and Dandridge also cover the interstate, which is heavy in call volume and the Dandridge Volunteer Fire Department covers 47% of the population of Jefferson County.

I have long been a proponent of funding emergency and first responder services. They are the safety net of the County and you never know just how much you need them until you need them. That is why I find it so difficult to believe that the County Commission is blind to their worth. But, the party line, at least for the past several budget cycles, has been “no money.” Well folks, I am sorry but I’m just not buying that we can’t afford essential services in Jefferson County. I don’t want a tax increase any more than the Commissioners want a tax increases but sometime we have to do what we don’t want in order to keep what we need. I don’t like it when the cost of my blood pressure pills increases but that doesn’t mean that I just refuse to pay for them. I make adjustments. We all make adjustments in our personal life and it is time that this County Commission looks at making adjustments for the betterment of our County.

It is simply not fair to blame the municipalities. They didn’t draw the line in the sand, the County Commission did with their refusal to seriously consider what Dandridge and White Pine were facing financially. To say that the elected and appointed officials from Dandridge and White Pine plead for consideration would be an understatement. They attended meeting after meeting, taking their allocated two minutes to address the Commission. I often wondered just why no hand was extended from the County Commission to the municipalities to sit down and negotiate. I know that some County residents are concerned that they will be without fire service and I understand their position. But it is not the responsibility of the tax payers inside the city limits of Dandridge and White Pine to pay for fire service for more than half of Jefferson County. Remember that every resident of Jefferson County is a County tax payer but only those that live inside the city limits are city property tax payers and that number is very, very limited.

Dandridge and White Pine have offered the County fire service contracts in the amount of $100,000 for Dandridge and $75,000 for White Pine. According to the numbers, this is still not a equitable split but it is at least a number that they can live with and it does not put undo pressure on the County Commission. The Commission has been searching for a way to split fire department funding and this may be a good fit for both the cities and the County. It keeps the smaller departments funded at a level they can sustain themselves and it allows for an increase in funding for the largest service providers. Jefferson County has not seen an increase in fire department funding in around a dozen years but in that same amount of time the population has risen by almost 7,000. The County Commission needs to do what is right for the majority of citizens of Jefferson County. Most are not large property owners and a small property tax increase, for the average home owner, is less than one dinner out. I know that the County Commission is concerned about seniors and young families who might have difficulty paying an increase in property tax. I say this – there are elderly and struggling young families inside the city limits of Dandridge and White Pine too. And with a smaller tax base to dilute any increase it would hit those who are struggling in the city harder than if any increase was diluted with the larger County property tax base. Most young families pay their property taxes with their monthly mortgage so any increase would be spread over the year and seniors who struggle have the option of tax assistance through several different programs. Would a small tax increase impact large property owners? Well, yes. But I would suggest that it is a small percent of property owners in Jefferson County that would be greatly impacted. Of course, there is another option. Just use a little of the hospital reserve funds, the lease money from the hospital that comes in at $750,000 annually, to cover the cost of fire service. I would think that most citizens would consider fire service an appropriate use of those funds.

Jefferson County is facing a crisis that we just shouldn’t be facing. We have good, strong fire departments that are staffed with trained, committed volunteers. Representatives from the Dandridge and White Pine Fire Departments have expressed their understanding of the position that their cities find themselves and offered their support. No one- not the municipalities, not the fire fighters and not the citizens-want to see any interruption in fire service for anyone in Jefferson County. I don’t think that the County Commission wants to see their citizens without fire service. It is time for Jefferson County to step up and help the municipalities fund this essential service. The contract offers look like a good middle ground for everyone and answer the question of how to find an equitable formula for funding. Let’s hope that good judgment prevails and the County Commission take a hard look at continuing to hold to that line in the sand. Municipalities and the County should be working toward a common goal, for the betterment of all the citizens. I would say that the ball is definitely in the County Commission’s court. It is time to come to the table and do what is right. And we all know that fire department funding hasn’t been right for a long, long time. Dandridge and White Pine did not take this stand lightly and that should, if nothing else, speak volumes to the County Commission and citizens of Jefferson County.

Source: K. Depew, News Director

Jefferson Farmers Co-op 08112014