A controversial fee added to Knox County property taxes last year has yielded big returns for fire departments across the county.
Enacted in 2016 by the Knox County Fiscal Court, the “Fire Subscription Fee” of $35 per parcel was added to Knox County property tax bills for 2017. The fee ensured property owners would receive the benefit of being served by their local fire department should the need arise.
The fee was introduced in response to fire departments asking for help with funding. On April 27, 2016, the ordinance to impose the $35 was passed unanimously. Despite several stories on the fee, some members of the community were shocked to find the increase on their tax bill and confronted the fiscal court for clarification on what the new fee provided.
The fee would curb a possible minimum charge of $500-1000 for any services rendered by the fire department in case of an emergency. While property owners could “opt-out” of the fee, the process was lengthy and often confusing, and was only effective for one year, meaning every year, the property owner would have to repeat the process to opt-out. The opt-out process included completing a form from the PVS’s office, and then receiving reimbursement for the fee by the local fire department.
In February 2017, the fiscal court announced an amendment that would make it possible to permanently opt-out or opt-in to the fire subscription fee.
To date for 2017, 881 property owners have opted out of the fee, equating to approximately 5% of the 15,528 tax accounts with the PVA’s office.
If no property owners were to opt-out of the fee, the fire subscription tax would have collected a potential $543,480. With the 5% opting-out, about $30,000 less will be coming in. This amount is still a considerable chunk of money for many of the county’s fire departments. Before the fee was enacted, most departments only received about $10,000 per year from the fiscal court. Some districts had their own taxes such as the Barbourville and Artemus fire departments. West Knox Volunteer Fire Department (WKVFD) had an optional $50 subscription fee in place that it gave up to help pursue this county-wide $35 subscription fee.
Of those 881 opt-outs, the majority came from the Stinking Creek Fire Department’s district, with the fewest coming from the Bailey Switch Fire Department district.
Willie Smith is nearing his fourth year as Chief with the Bailey Switch Fire Department. Prior to the subscription fee, Smith said the district received $11,000 last year in state aid, which was restricted to only buying equipment. As for other expenses, they had to get creative.
“I’m glad it (the subscription fee) turned it around for us. We don’t have to worry about where were going to get the money for the fuel, insurance, and all that,” Smith said, adding that in the past, their financial shortfall was covered with roadblocks, dinners and donation cards.
“It’s (the subscription fee) helped us tremendously on our training and updating our equipment,” Smith said. “We actually just got lucky and received a grant through Homeland Security, and was able to get eight new sets of gear. We don’t have to sorry about where we’re going to get money from, and we can concentrate on our training.”
Smith is grateful for his district having the fewest opt-outs this year. “I’m glad the community backs us that much, as strong as they have.”
Chief Darryl Baker of the WKVFD said, “From what I understand, and I don’t have the opt-out sheets yet, we have only had 3% opt-out in our district. I know it was less than what opted-out last year. The best thing about this funding is that we are able to be proactive and not just reactive. We are not wearing old out of date turnout gear. We all have NFPA approved gear. We can now schedule to do upgrades and maintenance knowing that we have the funds available. We have also started a savings account for a new or slightly used fire truck.”
The funding from the subscription fee amounts to nearly a 300% increase in the funding formerly received by the WKVFD. “We are no longer receiving coal severance money,” which was the $10,000 contribution from the Knox Fiscal Court (state aid).
With many districts receiving considerably more funding than ever before, accountability has certainly come into question. As for Baker’s department, he feels it’s his department’s responsibility to be wise stewards.
“With this added funding comes added responsibility. We are now required to complete a financial statement for the county and state. We are doing an audit once every four years. This way we can be very transparent with the funds. we want our community to know we are spending this money wisely. We want to save lives and property and if we can save them on insurance cost, that’s just an added bonus,” said Baker.
Slated for a future groundbreaking date, WKVFD will be working to construct a new station in Gray, near the Hwy. 233 intersection with U.S. 25E. “I have received so much good feedback about our fire department and this funding. Our new station is coming along slowly,” said Baker. “We are getting the building plans reviewed by an architect. Although I was hopefully to break ground this fall. It will not happen that fast.”
Requests for comments from the Stinking Creek Fire Department were not returned as of press time Wednesday. Any comments received from that department will be amended to this story on mountainadvocate.com.