| By Billy Davis
Citing rising costs for fuel, insurance and firefighting equipment, the Mt. Olivet Volunteer Fire Department plans to alter its by-laws to increase yearly dues and charge more for non-member fire calls.
The Mt. Olivet department and other volunteer departments already charge insurance carriers for their costs when firefighters respond to structure fires, most often a house or mobile home fire. Mt. Olivet currently charges up to $250 for "non-members," meaning property owners who have not made a yearly dues payment of $25.
The coming change at Mt. Olivet, however, will add grass fires and vehicle wrecks to the list of required payment, said Tony Meyer, chairman of Mt. Olivet’s board of commissioners.
The fire call charge to non-members, which will jump to a maximum of $500 when the new by-laws are passed, will be required of non-member residents regardless of whether or not they have insurance to cover the bill, confirmed Mt. Olivet Fire Chief Arthur Biggers.
The fire department’s annual membership dues, a voluntary payment from property owners, will jump from $25 a year to $35 a year if the by-laws are passed, the Mt. Olivet officials said.
The increases will begin January 1, 2007.
"This is not to put money in a bank account," said Biggers. "This money is to pay expenses and maintain our level of service."
Mt. Olivet’s plans surfaced at the "second Monday" meeting this week of the county supervisors. Representatives of the fire department handed supervisors a letter describing their intentions and the coming changes to the department’s by-laws, and asking for approval from the board.
Supervisors were split over whether the board of supervisors has any legal right to allow or even interfere in the fire department’s plans, eventually instructing board attorney Bill McKenzie to research the supervisors’ authority and report back.
The letter also made clear that Mt. Olivet will respond to fire calls regardless of a person’s membership or non-membership in the fire district.
Also during the meeting, Daniel Cole, Panola County Emergency Management deputy director, called the plan "ill-advised" due to liability issues over the membership.
Reached after the meeting, Cole said he hopes the department’s struggle for adequate funding is weighed against the liability issue.
"All of the fire departments are singing from the same sheet of music when it comes to funding," Cole said, "but the words ‘membership dues’ can get them in trouble. They have to be careful how they word that."
Regarding the struggle for operating funds, Cole agreed the county’s volunteer fire departments are hurting more each year as costs increase.
"All of the fire departments need the help and support of the community," Cole said. "I don’t think we’ll lose any of them, but they’ll be fighting an uphill battle for fuel and manpower."
Panola County is divided into 10 fire districts that are served by unpaid volunteer firefighters. In the Mt. Olivet Fire District, located southeast of Batesville, the coverage area stretches from the Central Academy area around Highway 315 and Highway 6 East to the Good Hope community, a total of 46 square miles.
The fire districts’ fire departments are partially funded by Panola County government, which taxes property owners two mills for fire protection, but depend also on fund-raisers, yearly dues payments, and often the firefighters’ own wallets.
The amount of tax monies raised differs from district to district according to the assessed value of property within each district. Mt. Olivet will receive about $8,500 this year from its millage, county figures show.
Annual fuel costs for the department’s vehicles have jumped from $2,000 to nearly $6,000 after the number of fire calls tripled in the last five years, Biggers told The Panolian.
"We’re growing every day in our fire district, but our funding is not keeping up with the demand," Biggers said. "We work on our own trucks, but if you can’t afford the parts then it doesn’t matter what work we can do, but people still expect us to show up."
The Mt. Olivet Fire District also boasts a Class 8 fire rating, an insurance scale from 1 to 10 that insurers use to price fire insurance on property such as homes and outbuildings.
A Class 1 rating is the best rating available and means cheaper insurance rates for the property owner. The Class 8 rating in the Mt. Olivet community is also the best of any of the county’s volunteer departments, which boast ratings of 9s and 10s.
In order to maintain its Class 8 rating, Mt. Olivet spends "a load of money" to replace outdated equipment, such as radios and firefighters’ airpacks, Biggers said.
"When we get inspected by the state, they use a point system to evaluate us," Biggers said. "They will pick up our stuff and say, ‘This is old, this is old,’ and then we’ll be back at a 10 and have to start all over."
A Batesville insurer contacted by this newspaper said $524 is the dollar difference in a Class 8 rating versus a Class 9 rating for a home in the Mt. Olivet community he recently insured for $80,000. A Class 10 rating would cost the homeowner $944 more than the Class 8 rating, he said.
The agent stressed that rates vary with credit scores and loss history.
Biggers said the Mt. Olivet Fire Department is proposing the change to its by-laws only after support from the community continues to dwindle.
"We don’t have fund-raisers any more because nobody shows up, and we don’t send out mailers anymore because we’ll spend $800 and not get that money back," Biggers said. "If everybody just paid their $25 a year, we wouldn’t be having this talk right now."