MOUNT IDA – Kendall Snyder, state fire coordinator for the Arkansas Department of Emergency Management (ADEM), assured a room filled with area fire fighters and local government officials that fire dues are still just dues regardless of how they are collected.
Members of most of the VFDs in Montgomery County and a couple from Pike County gathered to here Snyder speak at a meeting called by County Judge Sammy Jones. The meeting was called in response to a proposed ordinance that will allow Sims Volunteer Fire Department to collect their fire dues on resident’s personal property statement. The practice is not new. what is new is the way Sims VFD came about the proposed change.
According to the previous law, Arkansas Act 108, Volunteer Fire Departments could collect fire dues on the tax statement after a special election was held, which allowed residents to decide if they wanted to have them collected this way.
This Spring the Arkansas Legislature unanimously passed House Bill 1367 which is now known as Act 693.
Snyder explained at the opening of the meeting that the new law doesn’t change the old law very much. The most obvious change is that VFDs can now add the dues to the tax roll by gathering enough signatures on a petition calling to do so. The VFD has to collect 50 percent of the number of registered voters in their fire district plus one to achieve this change.
Dwayne Franklin, a member of the Sims VFD and a fire supply consultant, stated that they needed to collect 79 signatures and they collected 85. Six signatures were disqualified, leaving Sims with just enough signatures to call for the quorum court to approve the ordinance that would allow Sims VFD to collect fire dues through the tax statements.
Fire fighters were assured that if the dues are collected in such a way they are still the property of the VFD and they will still get the dues.
It was stated that most VFDs collect dues from 30-50 percent of the property owners in their district.
Franklin stated that Sims collects between 40-60 percent from year to year. Members of the South Fork VFD stated that they are collecting around 60 percent.
Judge Jones asked Snyder if this change would affect the 833 funding many VFDs depend on for support. Snyder stated that there was no direct connection to the percentage of dues collected to 833 funding. He added that there are already several rural VFDs in Arkansas that are collecting dues through their local tax statement by way of the old law.
It was stated that the general thought in the legislature was that they wanted to help VFDs lower their ISO rating which would help lower property owners insurance. Lawmakers hoped the changes enacted under Act 693 would help local VFDs collect more dues which would allow them to make improvements that would lower their ISO rating.
Snyder stated that Act 693 just gives rural VFDs a different avenue to collect.
David Steele, an ISO consultant from Benton, and Franklin stated that the reasoning behind the change in the bill is that under the old law VFDs had to undergo an expensive special election to collect in this manner. The expense was out of reach for many VFDs. Steele stated that his state representative, Kim Hammer, asked him what he could do to help local VFDs. After many discussions the changes through Act 693 were made.
Snyder stated that VFDs don’t have to collect dues through the tax statement, but if they do then nothing really changes other than they don’t have to collect dues themselves. He added that fire departments still have to respond to a fire regardless of whether a property owner pays his dues. Fire departments will still charge non due paying residents for the fire call.
Snyder was asked if it is a tax since it appears on the tax bill. He assured everyone that is is a due regardless of how it is collected.
One of the main concerns among those in attendance was whether or not payment of dues was mandatory if collected through the county assessor’s office. There was some discussion regarding whether it will be or not. Snyder stated that since the due is not a tax the county collector’s office could not collect delinquent dues. The law states that the county assessor will draw up a list of delinquent dues and present it to the respective VFDs. It would then be up to the VFD whether they pursue legal action against property owners who don’t pay dues.
Act 693 states in section 1(2)(B)
“A volunteer fire department may collect volunteer fire department dues that have become delinquent and may enforce collection by proceedings in a court of proper jurisdiction.”
The only change is an addition of the words “volunteer fire department” before dues to clarify which delinquent dues are being pursued.
A representative from the Sims VFD asked if residents will be told they don’t have to pay their dues?
Snyder’s response was “I wouldn’t tell them.” He went on to clarify that it is never OK to lie to a property owner, but he wouldn’t suggest notifying them that they don’t have to pay unless they ask.
Steele stated that if it is placed on the tax statement many of the dues would be picked up by mortgage companies who include payment of property statements in their home mortgages.
Another popular concern was the location it would appear on the bill. There are two sections to a resident’s tax bill. The top part reflects items that are mandatory payments and the bottom part reflects voluntary payments.
Franklin indicated that he had been told by Montgomery County Assessor Tammy McCarter that it would be listed on the last line among the mandatory items. Steele stated that his local VFD has collected dues through the tax roll for years and theirs is listed among the mandatory items.
When asked Monday, McCarter stated that she would place the due whereever it was supposed to legally go. If it is mandatory then it will be labeled as such, if not then it will be grouped with the other voluntary payments. She added that she was considering seeking an opinion from Attorney General Leslie Rutledge before making a final decision.
Franklin explained that the due would be clearly labeled as a due for the fire department. Many in attendance felt that it should be listed as voluntary on the bill if it was not required that people pay their dues.
Local ADEM coordinator Jerry Elizandro stated that he felt it would be misleading to put it at the top of the bill.
It was stated by Snyder that people can choose to not pay the due if it appears on their tax bill. He also reiterated that VFDs who choose to collect their dues through the tax statement do not have to pursue delinquent dues.
Steele suggested that VFDs draft a letter to explain what the VFD will charge if they have to respond to a fire at a property that doesn’t pay dues. He added that in his experience when people see how much it could cost them then they will pay. He also added that fire insurance for a residence is significantly cheaper if the homeowner pays fire dues.
Snyder was asked if people who don’t pay their dues names will appear on the delinquent tax list. He stated that he didn’t know, but reminded everyone that it wasn’t a tax it is a due.
He was also asked if the clerk’s office will receive any of the dues collected. He answered that they would be allowed to collect a nominal fee for the collection, but added that there is no specific amount listed in the law.
Snyder explained that it will be the responsibility of the VFD to create a list of residents in their district. Steele added that most of the labor was in the beginning.
Mount Ida Mayor Jo Childress asked if it will affect VFDs who don’t collect fire dues. The city of Mount Ida’s VFD does not collect dues.
Snyder stated that this law was meant to assist rural VFDs collect dues and it would not affect those who don’t collect dues.
The law does have a provision that applies to municipalities if they contract fire service from a rural VFD who collects dues.
Snyder urged everyone to talk to their people to dispel rumors. The purpose of collecting dues on a tax statement gives those not paying an opportunity to share the burden. However, he reminded everyone that there is no requirement they do so.
Judge Jones stated that he wasn’t against the Sims VFD. He just wished it had been explained better. He added that he felt the whole process at Sims had been handled “under the table” and wished it had been done more openly.
Franklin stated that they had 10 people soliciting signatures in the area. They tried to contact as many people as they could.
Bill Barnes, a member of the Joplin VFD, asked how he was supposed to know that he wasn’t supposed to pay if it appeared on his bill?
In full disclosure he admitted that Joplin doesn’t collect dues, but he asked Franklin how he approached his people with the petition.
Franklin stated that they asked people to sign the petition so they could collect fire dues on the tax roll.
Barnes stated that Joplin utilizes a federal government program in Greenbriar that provides equipment to local VFDs when available. He asked if the fact Joplin doesn’t collect dues may affect their participation in the program. Snyder acknowledged that if you don’t collect dues then you might have more difficulty getting aid in the future. Steele stated that some federal agencies were already asking for a list of dues collected by VFDs.
A representative from South Fork stated that he would have to have at least one-third of his residents tell him they wanted it before he would consider changing the way they collect dues. Another fire fighter stated that many of their residents pay more than the required due as a way of helping. He was afraid that would change if his VFD collected dues through the tax roll.
Barnes added that the communication in the county was “piss poor” regarding the passage of the law.
He also stated that he didn’t agree with the wording of the law, which states that “If an attested petition is filed with the county clerk and signed by a majority of registered voters in the volunteer fire department district voting in the immediately preceding general election, then the quorum court by ordinance shall dispense with a special election on the issue of the levy of volunteer fire department dues.”
Barnes stated that if the word “SHALL” forces the quorum court to vote a certain way then he feels it could be challenged in court.
Franklin and Steele was asked what would happen if the quorum court voted no.
Franklin’s response was, “You tell me.” He later explained that anytime a law is challenged those involved are forced to seek legal council and proceed as instructed.
After the meeting Franklin was asked about the use of the word shall. He pointed out that under the old law it stated that if a VFD desired to call a special election to do so it was written “that they shall call for a special election” and if it passes then dues shall be placed on the tax roll and collected by the county collector.
Franklin explained that all the ordinance does is to allow a VFD to forgo the special election, therefore the use of the word shall is no different than when it is used to call for a special election.
The ordinance to place the Sims VFD fire dues on the property tax statement will be presented to the Montgomery County Quorum Court Mon., Aug. 11 at their monthly meeting at the courtroom at 6 p.m.
to read Act 693 in it’s entirety visit http://126.96.36.199/~swarknews/2015/08/arkansas-act-693/