| By Billy Davis
The Mt. Olivet Volunteer Fire Department is moving ahead with plans to request annual dues, its fire chief says, but is also working with others to ensure the plan will work.
"We’re still working on the wording of it," Mt. Olivet Fire Chief Arthur Biggers said this week.
Mt. Olivet plans to alter its by-laws to increase yearly dues and charge more for non-member fire calls, citing as reasons rising costs for fuel, insurance and firefighting equipment.
Volunteer departments already charge insurance carriers for their costs when firefighters respond to structure fires, most often a house or mobile home fire, but Mt. Olivet plans to add grass fires and vehicle wrecks to the list of required payments.
Mt. Olivet currently charges up to $250 for "non-members," meaning property owners who have not made a yearly dues payment of $25, but will increase that maximum amount to $500 and begin charging non-member residents regardless of whether or not they have insurance to cover the bill.
The fire department’s annual membership dues will jump from $25 a year to $35 a year if the by-laws are passed.
The increases will begin January 1, 2007.
The department’s plans reached the public when a letter from its board of commissioners was presented to county supervisors at their September 11 board meeting in Batesville.
At issue, however, is the legality and liability of requiring a "membership" from citizens who already help fund the fire department through their property taxes. Two mills are levied in each of the county’s fire districts to pay for fire protection.
The liability issue was first raised by Daniel Cole, deputy director of Panola County Emergency Management, who called Mt. Olivet’s plans "ill advised" at the supervisors’ meeting.
According to Biggers, the board of commissioners plans to hear Cole’s concerns when the commission meets for a monthly meeting October 3.
"What I intend to tell them is that they can request donations but can’t ask for memberships," Cole told The Panolian this week.
"A county down south attempted this ?membership’ idea, which led to an opinion from the attorney general’s office that you can’t do it," Cole said. "So basically if Mt. Olivet just calls it what it is – a donation – then the issue will be settled."
The fire department is also corresponding with state fire officials about the proper wording, Biggers said.
"We feel positive we can work it out to where we can get support from the community," Biggers said. "We understand that, before we can get there, we’ve got to have everybody’s blessing."
Panola County’s non-municipal areas are divided into 10 fire districts that are served by volunteer fire departments such as Mt. Olivet. In addition to the millage monies, the fire departments also depend on state rebate funds that go to each county and are divided among the departments. Other sources of funding are fund-raisers, yearly donation drives, and often the firefighters’ own wallets.
The Pope Volunteer Fire Department holds one fund-raiser a year, a Halloween "haunted house," said Fire Chief John McCollum.
"We added onto our fire station and hope to knock down the payment with the money we make from the haunted house," McCollum said. "We hope to raise at least $6,000."
The Halloween event, which draws crowds on the last two weekends in October, has been a fund-raiser for Pope for nearly a decade, the fire chief said.
Asked about Mt. Olivet’s situation, McCollum said he has seen the department’s coverage area undergo a "growth spurt" in recent years.
"Their calls seem to have increased, too," McCollum said.
At the Bynum Volunteer Fire Department, Fire Chief Tony Ragon said the department mans three fire stations and seven vehicles.
"The fuel is killing us, but we manage our money pretty good and we work hard to raise funds," said Ragon.
Bynum’s fund-raisers include a mail-drive donation drive every January and a family picture fund-raiser at Easter, the fire chief said.