West Knox Fire Chief Daryl Baker said the county’s new ordinance attaching $35 in membership dues to each Knox County property tax bill has resulted in approximately $97,000 in operating revenue for the department in 2017.
“If all of the 4,000 properties in the West Knox District paid the membership dues, the department would receive about $140,000,” Baker said.
While the vast majority of people have paid the dues, Baker said there have been a few complaints, mainly from individuals that own multiple properties that have no type of structure.
“They will say, ‘I don’t care if there is a grass fire. Let it burn.’” Baker said.
Baker said one person had 16 pieces of property resulting in 16 separate property tax bills, each with the membership dues attached.
“Eight of them had structures, while the other eight were just empty land,” Baker explained.
Baker said those individuals, and anyone else may opt out of paying the dues.
“If you opt out, we will still come to your house if it is on fire and put out the fire, but we are going to bill you,” Baker explained.
However, a change to the ordinance allowed property owners only need to notify the sheriff’s office one time of their decision to opt out instead of sending notification each year.
“Baker said this could result in funding issues for the department down the road.
“We are trying to get across to people that the piece of land is more valuable because the fire department is there,” Baker said adding West Knox Fire Department had 380 runs in 2016. “Think of it as an investment in the community.”
Baker said while the membership dues only applies to property owners in Knox County, the department does receive funding from Laurel County.
The Laurel County Fiscal Court gives the department $45,000, annually. In addition, the department sends out voluntary donation letters to all of the property owners in its coverage area in Laurel County.
“The letters typically go out in May,” Baker said.
“Our budget in the past has been about $90,000, which has allowed us to survive,” Baker added. “The additional funding will allow us to buy new things that the department has needed.”
Baker said because the department serves residents in two counties, it works to ensure the funding remains separate.
“We have separate bank accounts. One holds the Knox County money and the other the Laurel County money,” Baker said. “The Laurel County money stays in Laurel County and the Knox County money stays in Knox County.”
Baker said there are a few exceptions such as the replacement of equipment such as turnout gear.
“We just spent $7,000 to purchase 23 helmets to replace 23 helmets that have been out of date,” Baker said adding the helmets are assigned to particular firefighters who use them when answering calls across the district.
“We still have seven people that don’t have approved gear,” Baker added. “We are working on that.”
Baker said the additional funding might also help with the long-planned station three in Gray.
Baker said site work is ongoing on the property on U.S. 25E near the intersection of Ky. 233 that was donated to the department.
The department has applied for grants through the Cumberland Valley Area Development Board and the federal government to help fund construction.
In addition to three bays to house fire equipment, Baker said plans are to have a community room to accommodate up to 250 people and a full commercial kitchen to provide meals.
“We also want it to be able to serve as an emergency shelter,” Baker said, adding if the department is able to get the funding for everything, the facility would cost approximately $250,000.
“I would like to have it open before the end of the year,” Baker said.
If the grants fall through, Baker said the department’s second option would be to finance construction as was done with station two in 2007.
“We borrowed the money to buy station two and paid on it for ten years,” Baker said. If we need to do that, we will.”
Baker said with the addition of the third station, every area of the district would be within five driving miles of a station. Baker said several firefighters live near station three, meaning they could have equipment on scene within five minutes of the tones dropping.
“We are hoping that having a station nearby will attract some more volunteer firefighters,” Baker said.
Baker said the addition of the third station and the coverage it will provide to businesses and residents in the Gray area should cause insurance rates in the district to go down.
“Our whole goal is to save everyone in our district more than the $35 in membership dues we are asking from them.”