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Wednesday
September 19, 2018

VFDs turn to county for billing, collecting

By David Showers
This article was published September 12, 2018 at 4:00 a.m.

The fire improvement district voters inside the Lake Hamilton Volunteer Fire Department's service area approved during a Feb. 13 special election will elect a board of commissioners Oct. 9.

The board election was initiated by an ordinance the Garland County Quorum Court adopted Monday night. Don Davis, president of the fire department's current board, said nominations for the seven-member board will be taken from the floor during next month's election at department headquarters, 1111 Highway 290.

Real estate owners inside the 44-square-mile service area spanning Garland and Hot Spring counties are eligible to vote. They will be allocated one vote for each assessed parcel they own inside the district.

Almost 8 percent of the more than 6,000 people who were eligible to cast ballots voted in the February election, approving the formation of the district by a 356-113 margin. The department's annual dues can now be levied by the quorum court the same way taxes for school districts and other taxing entities are imposed every November.

The district's dues will be included on 2018 tax statements the county tax collector's office will mail out in February 2019. Department officials have said vesting billing and collecting authority with the county will improve the current 80-percent collection rate. The district has about 4,500 members.

They said raising the percentage is critical in light of membership lost to Hot Springs' annexations of residents and businesses formerly in the department's service area.

One of the new board's first responsibilities will be assuming control of the department's assets from the current board. The attorney who advised the department on forming a fire district said earlier this year that the assets will not automatically transfer to the newly-formed district, explaining that they will have to be leased or conveyed.

Association of Arkansas Counties Chief Legal Counsel Mark Whitmore said Tuesday a volunteer fire department transitions from a nonprofit corporation to a quasi-governmental entity when it forms a fire improvement district, giving it the authority to impose liens or file court claims for unpaid dues.

Title to tax delinquent lands vests with the state land commissioner's office if property taxes assessed on it are two years past due, but Whitmore said properties cannot be referred to the state for unpaid fire dues.

"A fire department might be getting 30 or 50 percent of its dues, but once you start getting the dues on the tax rolls the percentage goes way up," he said. "It helps keep dues from going up, because it's not just a small percentage of people shouldering the burden.

"Getting a higher collection rate allows a district to spend money toward lowering its (Insurance Service Office) rating, which ultimately lowers everybody's property insurance."

Fire associations

The quorum court adopted an ordinance Monday night ratifying the formation of the Jessieville Fire Protection Association. The association structure enables the department to place its annual dues on property tax statements.

The quorum court gave the Buckville Volunteer Fire Department similar authority last month. The Morning Star Volunteer Fire Department was the first in the county to take advantage of the 2015 law allowing fire associations to form without holding a special election. Its dues are on 2017 tax bills that went out in February.

Morning Star, Jessieville and Buckville formed associations by presenting the county clerk's office with a petition listing signatures representing more than half of their service area's registered voters who cast ballots in the previous general election.

Reaching the signature threshold allows the departments to put their dues on property tax bills without the quorum court calling for a special election. Whitmore said departments remain nonprofit corporations under the association structure.

Their dues are not levied by the quorum court, but Whitmore said putting the obligation on property tax statements transfers billing and collecting authority to the county.

Jessieville and Buckville's dues will appear on 2018 tax statements the county will mail out in February 2019.

Local on 09/12/2018
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