Enough to Dampen the Flames

editorial-logo3It was an interesting week for Jefferson County. As some were busy planning picnics and lake outings, others were pouring into the Historic Jefferson County Courthouse to express their concerns about fire protection to the Jefferson County Budget Committee. If you think that the meeting went off without a hitch, you would be wrong. But not as wrong as I though you would be. As hot topic meetings go, it was much more reasonable than some that I have attended in the past. There was a little gavel action early on in the public input section and it was forceful enough to make the room, including me, jump. Some were offended but most that regularly attend meetings of the government know that it is very easy for a hot topic meeting to disintegrate quickly and become more of an all brawl, losing all productivity. A few times, in situations far less tense than the one Monday evening, I have witnessed Commissioners and dissenting members of the public being threatened by someone who attended with the best of intentions but let their emotions take control of their better judgment. When that happens it is a bad evening for everyone.

To be fair, the public had much at stake. When people feel that their property, what they have worked for their whole lives, as well as the safety of their family and themselves is at stake,emotions certainly run high. For the most part, citizens presented their case well. I was proud of the way the standing room only crowd conducted themselves. They came to plead their case for funding for the fire departments that service the areas outside the city limits of Dandrige and White Pine. For those that don’t know, the Town of Dandridge and the City of White Pine, in an effort to increase funding for their respective fire departments, offered to service the areas outside their city limits for a contract price of $100,000 for Dandridge and $75,000 for White Pine. At risk were those citizens’ fire service that are outside the city limits. Both Dandridge and White Pine have heavy service areas outside their city limits and they have both been unsuccessful in attempts to get the County to dedicate more funding to their departments.

After several motions, some of which appeared totally reasonable and others that were akin to a slap and a smile, one motion finally found favor. The approved motion increased funding to Dandridge Volunteer Fire Department by $30,000 for a total of $85,000 which is $15,000 short of the amount designated by the Dandridge Board of Mayor and Aldermen for service outside the city limits. White Pine ended up with an increase of $15,000 with a total funding of $70,000 which was $5,000 under their requested amount. New Market also received an additional $10,000 for a total of $90,000 in funding. All in all, it was a compromise. I have to be honest, I am not so sure why the budget committee stopped short of fully funding the requests of Dandridge and White Pine. But, and this is an important but, this is a move in the right direction. We have to start somewhere and this is the most promising move toward equitable funding in a dozen years.

Don’t get me wrong, there is still work to be done. Dandridge covers 47% of the population in Jefferson County, six schools and all of the County buildings, as well the largest interstate exit east of Nashville and maybe in the entire state. One of the arguments that was presented was that city tax payers should pay more because they have faster service and a better ISO rating. $100,000 in contribution is less than half of the budget on a lean year and way less that half the budget on an equipment purchasing year of a department that answers 80% of its calls outside the city limits. The Town of Dandridge and the City of White Pine were not asking for too much. They had already compromised in extending their offer. With that said, the County has more than one fire department to fund and worry about and they need some time to find an equitable funding formula. Will their funding allocation, with the extra $30,000 and $15,000 be enough to buy time and good will from Dandridge and White Pine?

Yes. I fully expect the Dandridge Board of Mayor and Aldermen and the White Pine City Council to continue to provide fire service in their regular service areas. The County offered a compromise to their compromise and I believe that most Commissioners know that the funding formula is not adequate. In the next several months, before the next budget season, I think we will see the municipalities and the County, as well as the Fire Chiefs Association, come to the table. It has been said that it was tried before but that is not quite accurate. Before, the municipalities were not a part of the equation and I think that will make a significant difference.

As compromises go, this one will work. No one wants to see anyone in Jefferson County without adequate fire protection. We have very dedicated, talented fire fighters in Jefferson County. We are blessed and, if they are willing to put their lives on the line for us, we should be able to come up with the money to fund their departments without any one group of citizens shouldering an unfair financial burden. The cities spoke loud enough that their voices were heard and that is what they are supposed to do for their residents. The County responded and, even if it isn’t perfect, it is a perfectly good place to start.

Kudos to the Fire Departments for their service, the Municipalities for their willingness to bring the funding issue to the forefront, and the County for responding to the needs of their citizens. And Kudos to the public because it is your voice that was heard above all others. You were the bridge for compromise and, now that the dialogue has started, the path ahead will be a little smoother to cross. It was a bumpy ride but we seem to, finally, be going in the right direction. I would call it a qualified win for everyone.

Source: K. Depew, News Director

Jefferson Farmers Co-op 08112014