John Howell’s column

Published 12:00 am Friday, April 20, 2012

Fire decision should not be logical, just right

Batesville’s mayor and aldermen are right to give serious thought to a policy that would end Batesville Fire Department service outside its city limits if the Panola County supervisors won’t pay the cost of a second fire truck. The city will be required to buy a second new truck this year if it is to keep its class 6 fire insurance rating and still allow a fire truck to respond to calls outside its corporate limits.

City residents pay ad valorem taxes to support fire protection in the town.

The city will also pay the cost of the firemen who will man the truck that will be dedicated to out-of-town calls. The city will bear the expense of maintaining and housing the vehicle.

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So it’s only prudent that the city’s elected officials would expect the county to pay the entire cost for the second truck that the rating bureau will require the city to purchase this year if the Batesville Fire Department is to continue its unrestricted responses.

And part of that discussion must necessarily include alternatives, among them consideration of limiting the city’s fire department responses to calls within city limits.

As stewards of city taxpayers’ dollars the mayor and aldermen are wrestling with the unexpected potential shortfall from the LSP Energy bankruptcy. That tax collection had been anticipated in this year’s budget, so city leaders have been scrambling, cutting in every department to bring expenses in line with the anticipated reduced revenues.

When they talk about cutting fire service to areas outside corporate limits, it is a necessary yet distasteful part of the job that they were elected to do.

Yet, in the end the city will continue to allow its fire department to respond to calls outside of town.
Not because the supervisors decide to contribute more than half the cost of the basic fire engine, much less the expenses related to equipping, maintaining and manning the thing, but simply because it is the right thing to do.

The idea that a fire or some other emergency requiring well-equipped, well-trained first responders could arise just across an invisible legal boundary we’ve created and Batesville’s Fire Department would have to stop on one side of it and watch is just too onerous to implement.

Think that scenario’s far fetched?

What about North Delta School on Highway 6 West, just outside city limits? If Batesville’s Fire Department could not respond outside corporate limits and, God forbid, some emergency arose there, how far away is the next-nearest fire department? Curtis-Locke Station? Courtland? Mt. Olivet?

Closer on Highway 6 West but still outside city limits is TC Lumber. If that business should experience a fire and nearby Batesville firemen are prohibited from leaving city limits, the response time required for the next-nearest fire department seriously increases the owner’s risk for loss.

Those are but two examples. Dozens of homeowners in areas surrounding the city limits would see their insurance rates increase, some drastically. And the chances for loss of life might increase in a situation where a timely arrival of first responders could have prevented it.

Granted, these people living and doing business just outside city limits receive the benefit of the city’s fire protection without having to pay for it, but they shop here and eat here, paying the sales tax on purchases and the tourism tax on food that goes into city coffers, swelling that source of revenue on which the city is heavily dependent.

Further, what discord might arise between fire departments who now interact harmoniously, providing fire protection and first responder help when the resources of any one department is overtaxed?

Batesville officials should continue to look for ways to keep city taxpayers from paying more than their share for services, including fire protection. When they discussed in public meetings the option of ending fire service outside city limits, they were being diligent and loyal to the taxpayers and voters who put them in office.

But it is doubtful that those same Batesville taxpayers and voters would want their fire department to drive up to that legal boundary and stop without rendering aid to the person on the other side who needed help. They are still our neighbors. Around here we’ve always been quick to lend a hand to a neighbor in need. If that’s not what Batesville’s about, then we’ve lost our way.