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After several months of debate, the Owen County Fiscal Court passed an ordinance that makes it mandatory for property owners to pay fire department membership fees. The ordinance was passed during a special June 25 meeting.
When ordinance 156 was passed during the June 2008 fiscal court meeting, the court agreed that the ordinance would be reviewed annually.
Upon reviewing the ordinance this year, the court concluded that ordinance 156 was illegal because it gave property owners the option of not paying the fire department membership fees.
Owen County Judge-Executive Carolyn Keith said she discussed the issue with Owen County Attorney Charles Carter, as well as several other county attorneys, and they all agreed the ordinance was illegal.
“All the attorneys I spoke with said the ‘opt-in opt-out’ was illegal,” Keith said.
Although it is now mandatory for property owners to pay the fire department membership fees, the court did agree to lower the fee on noncommercial property.
The ordinance, which is now ordinance 164, reads that no fee will exceed $35 per tax bill for noncommercial property. The fee will stay at $75 for commercial property.
Although the modified ordinance passed, some members of the court still have mixed feelings.
Magistrates Teresa Davis and Ray Smith voted against the first and second readings of the ordinance.
Davis said she did what she thought the residents of her district wanted.
“It didn’t make the people in the fiscal court happy,” Davis said. “But it made the people in my district happy. It was nothing against the fire departments. I just had to do what the people in my district wanted me to do.”
Regarding the lack of agreement among court members, Keith said, “I think with some it was just a sincere difference of opinion. I think sometimes we base our opinions upon what will be popular, but I really believe some just did not agree with it and others did.”
Now that the ordinance has passed, Owen County fire departments should know more about their revenue, Keith said.
“Time was running out and if we had gone into next year without passing this ordinance, the fire departments would have had to run solely off donations,” Keith said. “Based upon this plan, they’re going to know approximately what their budget will look like.”
Keith said finding volunteer firefighters is not always easy, but there are ways to help the volunteer fire departments.
“If we can’t donate our time to being volunteer firefighters, we can at least support them,” Keith said.
The fiscal court also passed policies on using personal cell phones for county business and using county vehicles for personal business.
A $40-credit will be applied to cell phones in compliance with the IRS.
No county vehicle will be used for personal business. If a county employee drives a county-owned vehicle home after work, they will be charged $3 each time. This $3 per diem will be taxable at the end of the year.