Magistrates approve first reading of membership fees with changes

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Procedure for opting out added to measure

By Molly Haines

Some magistrates had mixed feelings when an updated version of a county ordinance that grants the authority for collection of fire department membership fees was given its first reading at the June 9 Owen County Fiscal Court meeting. The first reading of the ordinance passed. The second reading is scheduled for June 25..

The first version of the ordinance was approved during the June 2008 fiscal court meeting. At that time, members of the court agreed that the ordinance would be reviewed yearly.

Problems with the ordinance were discovered when it was reviewed this year.

One part of the original version said that any property owner who did not want to pay the fire department subscriber fees was not required to do so. Property owners who did not pay the fees did not incur any delinquency or penalty. Under the ordinance, property owners who wished to delete property from subscriber fees were to notify the sheriff’s department at the time of payment on property taxes.

Owen County Attorney Charles Carter said there was no provision for opting out in the statute, and because of this one section, the ordinance was repealed.

“If something is done that is not authorized by a statute or a law, you can have trouble in the future,” Carter said. “Frankly, it’s just not the right way of doing business.”

The original ordinance said that fees could not exceed $40 per tax bill for noncommercial property and $75 for commercial property. If passed during the second reading, the amended ordinance will then read that no fee shall exceed $35 for noncommercial property and $75 for commercial property.

The amended version of section three also says that owners of multiple parcels of noncommercial property are required to pay only a maximum of $70, but fire service will be provided on all of their properties without further charges. Owners of multiple properties who are husband and wife and have units owned by one individually and others jointly are considered together as the same ownership. Also, property owners who owe no property tax because of the homestead exemption are entitled to fire coverage but are exempt from payment of the membership fee without further charge.

The amended ordinance also says that each fire department will provide a financial statement on a quarterly basis after collections begin and are subject to audit by the county treasurer.

During the June 9 Fiscal Court meeting, magistrates Teresa Davis of district three and Ray Smith of district four voted “no” on the first reading of the ordinance.

“Because I had not talked to my constituents about the ordinance I couldn’t say yes to it,” Davis said. “When I became a magistrate I said I would do what the people in my district wanted me to do. It would be their vote I would bring in, and I did not have time to talk to them first.”

Smith declined to comment.

Because two magistrates, Jerry Jones and Bobby Gaines, voted to accept the first reading of the ordinance, Owen County Judge-Executive Carolyn Keith broke the tie with a “yes” vote.

A special fiscal court meeting will be held at 6 p.m. June 25 for a final decision.