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Lebanon stokes fire debate
May 11, 2006 12:00 am
May 3, 2006 – Potentially reigniting a countywide political issue, Lebanon city councilors voted unanimously to study how city residents' tax dollars are used for city and county fire service.
Studying the finances of both municipalities comes in the wake of a proposed agreement between the City of Mt. Juliet and Wilson County, which allows the West Wilson city to pay $25,000 to the county for overseeing fire protection services.
Should the agreement proposed by the ad hoc fire study committee pass the County Commission in nearly two weeks, a committee will be formed among city officials with the goal being what Mayor Don Fox called "equity" in funding fire service countywide.
While insisting consolidating Lebanon's fire department with Wilson Emergency Management was not on the table, Fox said he sought a funding arrangement similar to the county's proposed pact with Mt. Juliet. Under the proposed five-year contract, Mt. Juliet would provide $25,000 and a trained volunteer force as well as leasing the county a fire station building for $1 per year.
"What we're working for is equity in funding, equity in financing," Fox said. "It has nothing to do with consolidation … (but) we may be funding a portion of all fire service throughout the county."
After the vote, Lebanon Public Safety Commissioner Billy Weeks said he would like to see fire tax districts created, which would distinguish incorporated areas with fire protection from unincorporated county land as well as the City of Mt. Juliet.
"I'd like to see fire taxing districts for the City of Lebanon so (Lebanon residents are) not paying for fire service in the county," Weeks said.
Fox referred to a court decision in the mid-1990s brought by Lebanon residents which resulted in a ruling by Chancery Court Chancellor C.K. Smith stating Lebanon residents would receive 3 cents off their county property tax rate.
"We were informed by a county commissioner later on in 1997 or 1998 or so that that had gone away," Fox said after the meeting. "An amendment had been made (to Tennessee Code Annotated) by (former Sen. Bob) Rochelle … concerning fire districting."
And the fire study committee Fox designated – which includes Finance Commissioner Hal Bittinger, City Attorney Andy Wright and councilors William Farmer and Haywood Barry – could have on its shoulders the task of pinning down just what happened in the wake of Smith's court decision.
"I want them to look at the county accounting, look at the records and see where our city tax dollars are going," Fox said. "We pay that same rate, but we provide our own schools, we provide our own fire service. … I want to know did TCA get changed? Did we kind of get slipped behind? It looks like we might have."
In other business, a $1 million emergency allocation designated for a closed landfill once owned by the city was held up amid questions about how the expenses came to pass and why they were not covered in the original contract.
Ward 1 Councilor Alex Buhler questioned why city officials did not negotiate with the county – the current landfill owner.
"I'm telling you, just from the meetings we had, they wanted no part of it," Ward 6 Councilor Kathy Warmath said. " … It's our problem."
"Every time I'm up here I'm under the gun to do something," Buhler said, adding he did not like what he called an "open-ended" contract.
In addition, Buhler criticized Public Works Commissioner Jeff Baines for part of the expenses, which will go toward cleaning up a site the city was using to dump woodchips prior to a state directive to clean up the site.
"We should have known better than to dump in the other place," Buhler said.
"Our responsibility is to clean this up," Baines replied.
Ward 3 Councilor Farmer moved to defer the matter and hold a work session. The motion passed unanimously, setting up a work session for Tuesday, May 9.
In other business, a resolution to raise the sewer capacity fee to $2,000 from $500 passed 4-3 with Fox breaking the Council's tie. The rate has not changed since 1987.
City Engineer Jody Vance also announced he would be leaving the city, returning to former employer Gresham Smith and Partners.
"I've enjoyed working here and it's a small window of opportunity and I think I need to take advantage of it," Vance said, adding he would continue to reside in Lebanon and would sit on the Public Works Committee.
Staff Writer Jason Cox can be reached at 444-3952 ext. 45 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.