The City Beat saw this story on ABC News last night and wondered if this could happen in Grand Forks, by this I mean:
South Fulton, Tenn., firefighters stood on the sidelines, watching as flames engulfed Gene Cranick‘s Obion County home. They refused to help because Cranick had not paid an annual “pay to spray” subscription fee.
“I just forgot to pay my $75,” homeowner Gene Cranick said. “I did it last year, the year before. … It slipped my mind.”
The city of South Fulton charges that $75 fire protection fee to rural residents who live outside the city limits. When a household has not paid the fee, firefighters are required by law to not respond.
As it turns out, there’s a similar law in Grand Forks. I couldn’t find a copy of the South Fulton city codes for a comparison, but here’s what Grand Forks’ city codes says (I’ve bolded the key parts, so skip the rest if you’re inclined.):
ARTICLE 5.Â FIRE PROTECTION OUTSIDE CITY LIMITS
12-0501.Â Agreement contracts–Application; fees; termination.
City fire protection shall be available to an owner of property situated outside of the taxing jurisdiction of the City of Grand Forks upon approval of the application of the owner by the fire chief and city council, and the payment of fees in an amount computed as specified herein, said application of the owner having been made to the city auditor. The annual fee for such outside fire protection shall be an amount equal to the annual mill levy for fire protection within the city could produce based on a “taxable” value as determined by the city assessor, using the same methods the city assessor uses to arrive at taxable value of property within the city, with a minimum of fee for such outside fire protection specified as one thousand eighty-four dollars ($1,084.00) per year. Each contract shall have an anniversary date of January 1, with the beginning payment of each contract to be prorated to the next January 1, with each payment thereafter to be made annually on or before January 1 of each year. Protection of any property for which payment is not made as herein provided shall be deemed cancelled at the hours of midnight on January 1. The city council may terminate any such contract as of the anniversary date of January 1 of any year upon ninety (90) days’ written notice, and may terminate any such contract as to property which has refused annexation to the City of Grand Forks ninety (90) days after such refusal….
12-0503.Â Use of fire equipment outside city; circumstances, discretion.
The fire officer in charge of the city’s firefighting facilities at any given time is hereby authorized to dispatch from the city limits such of the city’s fire apparatus, equipment, and personnel as the officer deems appropriate under the circumstances in response to a fire or life threatening emergency existing outside the city limits or a hazardous materials incident occurring within the county limits in the following cases:
(1)Â Â Where a fire or life threatening emergency exists on property shown on the current list of outside fire protection.
(2)Â Â Where a fire exists on property not under contract, but because of its proximity, threatens property which the city is obligated to or has agreed to protect. However, in such cases the fire equipment shall be used to fight a fire on such property not under contract only to the extent necessary to save lives and protect that property which is under contract or which is situated within the city limits.
(3)Â Â Where a fire exists upon a public highway and is located not more than fifteen (15) miles from the city limits.
(4)Â Â Where a fire or life threatening emergency exists as a result of some accident which occurred on a public highway at a point not more than fifteen (15) miles from the city limits.
(5)Â Â Where a fire or hazardous materials incident exists and is a prime obligation of another jurisdiction with which the City of Grand Forks has mutual aid agreement in force executed by specific authorization of the city council.
(6)Â Â Where a fire exists as a direct or indirect result of any operation or activity operated, managed, or conducted by the City of Grand Forks.
(7)Â Â In all other cases, fire department service to locations outside the city limits shall be limited to life threatening situations or responses to hazardous material incidents within the county limits.
(8)Â Â Provided, however, that the restrictions and conditions established by this article shall not be applied to the use of that fire department vehicle commonly designated as the rescue van or rescue vehicle where circumstances in which use of such fire rescue van or vehicle has been requested by another fire department, political subdivision, or the United Hospital of Grand Forks, North Dakota.
(9)Â Â Provided, further, however, that nothing herein shall in any way, impose any liability whatsoever by the City of Grand Forks for any failure of the city to dispatch such fire apparatus, equipment, and personnel, to successfully combat any fire, control and handle any life threatening emergency, or respond to any hazardous materials incident.
(10)Â Â The extent to which such apparatus, equipment, and personnel of the City of Grand Forks shall be used and the manner of combating a life threatening emergency, fire or incident shall rest in the sole discretion of the officer in charge of the fire department at any give time. It is intended, under any and all circumstances, that property inside the city will always be given preference in case of simultaneous fires or life threatening situations.
So in South Fulton, it sounds like the Carricks called for help, but the fire department wouldn’t come. Then a neighbor whose property was threatened and who had paid the $75 called, then the firefighters came, but only to protect the neighbors’ property, leaving the Carricks’ home to burn.
That’s exactly what Subsection 2 above is about.
I called fire Chief Pete O’Neill and he said he remembered that in the 1970s, something exactly like this happened. Club 81, a strip club on U.S. Highway 81, was burning, but it hadn’t paid the fire protection fee. Northwest Bell, or something like that, was next doors and the company had paid. So GFFD went out there to protect Northwest Bell, but didn’t touch Club 81. The Manvel Fire Department, which covered that area, had to come down to take care of the blaze, by which time it was too late.
Since the law is still on the books, I think this could happen again.
Fire protection scheme
Here’s how fire protection works in this area:
- Inside city limits, it’s GFFD’s job, obviously.
- But Grand Forks has a mutual-aid agreement with East Grand Forks and Grand Forks Air Force Base, so if the fire departments in those area called for help, GFFD would be obligated to respond.
- Outside city limits, fire protection is divided up among three rural fire departments: Thompson to the south, Emerado to the west and Manvel to the north. GFFD could help if asked — it’s a good-neighbor policy not mutual aid — but the city doesn’t have the tanker trucks needed to fight rural fires; they need hydrants.
- There happens to be islands of unannexed land within city limits — basically non-city land surrounded by city land — and some have homes on them; there’s a home on South 42nd Street that’s outside, according to Chief O’Neill. They’re under the jurisdiction of whichever rural fire department’s zone that they’re closest to. Under the most public relations-ugly scenario, one of those homes could go up in flames and the owners hadn’t paid. We’d be seeing GFFD firefighters not doing anything while hundreds of cars drive by.
There’s a reason for this, to some eyes,Â heartless treatment. If the city helps, then people that live just outside city limits to avoid city taxes would be getting the same protection that people who do pay taxes. And, if there were another big fire inside city limits at the same time and GFFD couldn’t muster a full response in a timely manner, that’d be inexcusable.
Anyway, I wonder how Grand Forks is going to look in the national news if an incident like South Fulton happened here. First, you’ve got the mainstream media going bonkers over it; go ahead and Google “South Fulton fire” and see what comes up. Now you’ve got talking heads trying to turn up even more heat.
Cost of service
By the way, if you readÂ Section 12-0501 above, you’ll notice that the fire protection fee is $1,084. The city plans to raise it to $1,120. I’m not sure what this is about. I had a lengthy and inconclusive discussion with City Council member Curt KreunÂ about the fees, which don’t seem to reflect actual cost of service to the average property owner in town. Curt hadn’t read the law so he thinks that because there areÂ other revenues that go into fire protection than just property taxes the cost of service can be higher than property taxes. He’s kind of wrong, but we’ll get to that in a second.
I have done stories where I figured out the property tax bill for the average homeowner and it came to around $660. Now, that’s $660 for all city services — except utilities — not just fire protection. One would expect fire protection to be a fraction of that, say a third. GFFD’s budget is a bit smaller than GFPD’s, which is about half the general fund, if I remember correctly.
Now to Curt’s point: Yes there are other revenues that pay for fire protection. I just did a story about how we pay for city services a few weeks ago. I don’t have a break out for fire alone, but public safety as a service — including the cops, 911 center and courts –rely on property taxes for 32 percent of funding. The rest are sales tax, 12 percent; fees, fines, licenses, 11 percent; interest and dividends; 1 percent; grants and other intergovernmental transfers, 14 percent; rental and other earned income, 6 percent; cash carry-over from the previous year, 1 percent; and transfers from other departments that are protected by public safety, 23 percent.
If the principle is the rural resident pays whatever the average property owner in Grand Forks pays, then property taxes is pretty much it. The only fees residents pay that nobody else pays are utilities, and most of that is purely for the cost of service; the council recently agreed to a 2 percent fee increase to subsidize other city services, which includes fire. A rural resident also pays sales tax and their income tax contributsÂ to those intergovernmental transfers.
Curt is a hardliner about people living just outside city limits to avoid higher city property taxes, so he always gets a little obstinate where that issue is concerned. I don’t know why he’s so emotional about it, but I was merely pointing out that I think the fire protection fee is a tad high and doesn’t appear to reflect of the law. But the attitude I’m getting is if people want to avoid paying the city then they can’t complain if the city doesn’t help them.