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(Editor’s note: The following article was written by The Springfield Sun newspaper as part of a continuing series looking at local fire department issues.)
The City of Springfield and Washington County are currently served by two separate fire departments. Each department operates on its own budget, with its own sources of income. However, the departments are primarily made up of the same firefighters doing the work when a fire arises.
In a recent discussion about fire protection, magistrate Hal Goode asked a question about a merged fire department and the possible benefits for citizens. Bruce Roberts, who serves as division director for the Kentucky Fire Commission, commented that Spencer County and the Taylorsville community have merged their departments, and it appears to be working well. Nathan Nation agrees with Roberts.
Nation serves as fire chief for the Taylorsville-Spencer County Fire Protection District, and he’s been in that position since 1998, though he has fought fires in the county for more than 20 years. He said the move to go to a single fire department for Spencer County was a good move, in his opinion, for the entire county. From the description Nation gave of Spencer County’s situation before merging, it was very similar to the situation Springfield and Washington County now face for fire protection.
“In 1913, the city formed a department of volunteers, and until then, there was no fire protection in the county. In 1953, the same volunteers for the city formed a corporation and another fire department outside the city limits,” Nation explained. “We had two legal entities, both being operated by the same volunteers.”
He said until 1993, the city of Taylorsville’s fire department was funded through the city’s budget, while the county fire department was funded by membership dues, which were $25 per year, and paid on a voluntary basis by citizens. If they paid the fee, property owners were served at no extra charge. But for those who chose to not pay the fee, they would be charged around $700 to $800 for a fire run, according to Nation.
“We realized in the early 1990s that with the costs of providing fire protection, this voluntary system just wasn’t cutting the mustard as far as generating revenue,” Nation said.
“We outlined a proposal to fiscal court, and signed a petition to form a taxing district in the county at 5 cents per $100 property assessment,” Nation said. “Our goal was to construct fire houses throughout the county and get everyone within five miles of a fire station to provide a lower rate. The public trusted us, and the court approved it.”
He pointed out that the cost of fire protection through the taxing district was $75 on a property valued at $150,000, but the savings were much greater than the fee once insurance rates were cut nearly in half.
Nation said the new fire district officially came into existence in 1993, and the department began receiving tax money in 1994.
Although there was a new fire district to serve properties in Spencer County, Nation said Taylorsville’s fire department continued to operate. Around 2005, he said some issues came up where the city would be annexing properties that were previously covered by the county department, and that brought about a conflict of coverage.
The property owner was already paying the county fee, but they also began to pay the city tax as well. That’s what brought the two fire departments to a table to talk about a merger.
“When the city would annex a property, the owner was getting billed twice for the same service,” Nation explained. “Another issue was the sheer cost of equipment. Both departments were serving about 20,000 people, and we needed to do it at a lower cost.”
In 2008, the county fire department’s board met with the Taylorsville City Commission, and Nation said the city agreed to dissolve its department and turn over its assets to the county fire district for protection at the same rate the county property owners were paying, and the county was then served by one joint fire department.
“Basically, we have one fire department now, one board, and the city contracts with the fire district to provide service,” Nation said. “It’s a much better way to do business.”
Spencer County now has three paid firefighters and 55 volunteers across the county.
They serve a population of about 18,000 people in the county, with around 1,200 of those being in the Taylorsville city limits, according to Nation.
“I guess the biggest thing is, from the taxpayer standpoint, some were paying duplicate payments for fire service, and we’ve eliminated that and created a system where you get the same coverage whether you live in the city or the county, everybody pays the same for fire protection,” he explained. “Operationally, nothing has changed.”
When somebody calls 911, the same people show up and respond the same way. The community saw no difference, other than the savings.”
Nation added that a community simply has to decide what level of fire protection it wants and what has to be done to pay for it.
“Even though you may pay a little more for fire protection on your taxes, those guys can give it back to you on reduced insurance rates,” he said.