FORT SMITH – Four Sebastian County’s rural fire departments have taken steps towards a new funding structure to increase their budgets.
Sebastian County Judge David Hudson said nomination panels were approved during a public session for the Big Creek and Riverdale Fire Departments in Lavaca and the Milltown-Washburn and Greenwood Rural Fire Department in Greenwood.
The Sebastian County Quorum Court approved an ordinance in September authorizing these fire departments to convert 501 (c) (3) nonprofits into fire protection districts. Hudson wrote in a memo for that meeting that the primary objective for such a conversion is to have the county tax collector appraise, collect, and collect the operating costs of a fire department on the county property tax returns.
The ordinance states that under Arkansas law, all annual expanded and collected fire district assessments are payable when ad valorem property taxes are payable. These assessments will be listed as involuntary collection by the district from the next Ad Valorem property tax return, ie the owners pay the assessments as a prerequisite for paying taxes.
Hudson, chairman of a December 1 meeting, said each of the four fire districts had submitted the names of five candidates to be represented on their respective commission bodies with five members. These nominations were due in the Sebastian County Judge’s office by noon November 30 and included:
• William C. Warren Jr. of Charleston
• Harry Torres from Lavaca
• Toby Biber from Lavaca
• Ali Rashidi from Lavaca
• Jacob Shotzman from Charleston
• Johnny Hobbs from Lavaca
• Tommy Smothers from Lavaca
• Bobby White from Lavaca
• John David May II of Lavaca
• James Corbell from Lavaca
• Paul King of Huntington
• Phil Hicks of Greenwood
• Hunter Wiley from Greenwood
• James Rogers from Greenwood
• Gary Cumbie from Greenwood
• Jim Brown from Greenwood
• Gerald Thomas of Greenwood
• David Ozuna from Greenwood
• Larry Rogers from Greenwood
• Jody Morgan from Huntington
Hudson said one of the next steps for these new boards would be to appoint three appraisers for each fire protection district to determine their respective dues and a “woodland rate” per acre that cannot exceed 5 cents per acre.
“Then each fire district must complete its assessment and determine its submission and submit it to the county assessor’s office by Friday, December 18,” said Hudson. “And then it’s put on the records to … create real estate tax returns as part of the tax book.”
“The Board of Commissioners can set a flat fee per property, per hectare or per landowner,” says the regulation. “The Committee of Commissioners may set a different flat fee for classifying property as commercial, residential or unimproved property. The Committee of Commissioners orders the appraisers to reassess the annual benefits of protected property in the fire protection district once a year the annual benefits can be increased or decreased as fire protection services benefiting the change of ownership. “
In a memo included in the materials for the December 1 meeting, Hudson wrote that the 2021 district fire tax will apply to fire protection services in 2021.
In another memo, Hudson gave an estimate of the revenue each fire department would make if a flat fee of $ 35 per residential or commercial building were levied annually. In this hypothetical situation, Greenwood Rural would receive a net amount of $ 32,762 after deducting a 3% county collector commission from the gross. Big Creek would get $ 49,533; Milltown-Washburn would get $ 26,719; and Riverdale would get $ 6,586.
Hudson previously told the Arkansas Democrat Gazette that state law provides for a process that will allow firefighters to be levied on property tax returns after an ordinance is passed.
“The normal procedure is for the fire departments to send declarations to the owners of various options … in their assigned district, and it is voluntary for the owners to pay the fire service fees each year,” said Hudson. “… I think that one of the fire brigades indicated that their share of the collection is around 30%, so it will vary depending on the area.”
Hudson has said that this disparate billing and collection method should have a positive impact on the revenue that helps keep fire departments running.
Nathan Mendenhall, a Fort Smith-based attorney who represents these four fire departments, said the move to a fire prevention district and mandatory fee levy is “absolutely critical” as such rural volunteer fire departments receive no funding compared to voluntary levies with municipal fire departments.
“It’s not uncommon for a fire department to receive 20-30% of the fees that are supposed to be paid to them,” Mendenhall said. “It’s not a lot of money yet, and then when you talk about 20% and 30%, it will be you [a] fighting division. You have to service fire engines. Your equipment is expiring. “
The issue of funding is a constant battle for these departments, according to Mendenhall. In his opinion, if a duty can be due, even if some don’t pay, it will “change their world”.
“It will not only significantly improve the economic circumstances they face but also their morale I believe,” said Mendenhall.