By Clint Parker
Marshall – Marshall Fire Chief Regina Rice appeared before the Madison County Commissioners at the Monday evening meeting (July 13) to asked that everyone pay the same fire taxes and that their station be given all the money from the districts the department covers.
Rice started with a map she had provided to the commissioner showing the fire department coverage area with the town of Marshall, where it is located. A larger area called the Smoky Mountain Fire district where residents pay an eight cents per $100 of value on their property and then even extensive area known as the Marshall Fire district where no fire tax is collected at all.
“The red line shows the area we provide the same service for but without any tax revenue,” explained Rice. “This is becoming increasingly hard because we have grown this so much…To my knowledge, the Marshall Fire Department and the Hot Springs Fire Department are the only districts in the county that don’t get a fire tax for their entire district.”
According to Rice, who spoke with the Tribune after the meeting, the department’s entire budget is about $200,000 annually, getting about $146,000 from the Smoky Mountain Fire District and the rest from the Town of Marshall. Asked if she could tell how much the revenue would increase the department’s budget, Rice, who has been chief for the last two and half years, said did not know.
She said she is trying to move the department to a 24-hour station and build a substation in the Little Pine area of the Smoky Mountain Fire District, which is about 10 miles away from the central station in Marshall.
How to implement the fire tax in the district, which has not been taxed in the past, is the trick. Madison Board of Commissioner Lawyer Donny Laws told the board and Rice at the meeting that the board does not have the authority to execute a fire tax on residents but need a petition from 35 percent of the homeowners in the district to petition the board for an election of a fire district. Chairman Craig Goforth then asked the Laws what if the department gave the resident six weeks and then said, “You’re on your own?”
“That gives them the incentive to sign the petition,” said Laws. Rice said she could not listen to tones going off and someone dying or house burning down and not do anything.
“The [town] lawyer kind of threw me off,” said Rice to the Tribune about Laws comments, “and he was not accurate. The fire department does have a lawyer that is…” an expert in laws which “…deal with fire departments. He had already kind of briefed me on what are rights are and what we need to do…and I didn’t feel like the county lawyer addressed that correctly.”
Speaking about how part of the district has remained untaxed all these years, Rice explained, “I wasn’t in the fire service years ago when this happened, but I know that it is important for our department to have this because we are not a 24-hour department.” She also added for acquiring new equipment and provide a quicker response time to everyone, the department service.
“My goal is to provide better service. For it to be better than what it has been in the past. Sometimes I feel like the fire department has had a bad rap,” said Rice. “I do have standards and expectations that I expect to be met.”