STUDY: Knox County sees population growth, fire departments see less money

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Knox County leaders will consider the fate of multiple fire departments in the months ahead, based on recommendations from a UT County Technical Assistance Service emergency response and efficiency study in Knox County. 

The study recommends a lot of things, including creating a Knox County Fire Rescue Department and imposing a county-wide tax, rather than giving homeowners the choice of subscribing to a fire service or donating to a volunteer program. 

It also points at the amount of money coming into county fire departments and the number of people coming into the county. 

The study found a large number of people who depend on Rural Metro, Karns Fire or Seymour Volunteer Fire aren’t paying in.

It found a county tax would drop the cost for those already chipping in and pay for more equipment and staff to keep up with a grouping population. 

A county fire department could look different than you might think.

It could be: contracts between those three fire agencies and the county, one or more existing agency absorbing another or they could all be absorbed into the new county department. 

Knox County Commission Chair says they’ll likely revisit this topic months from now.

Right now, he says the priority items are the overcrowding problem at the jail and the capital needs of Knox County Schools.

He also says an updated county growth plan, which he said could take a year or more to complete, will be a factor in their decision making. The question, he said they ultimately face is, will we have adequate coverage as Knox County continues to grow?

Seymour Volunteer Fire Department Chief John Linsenbigler says they’re barely making it financially.

Ten percent of SVFD staff does receive some pay, but most of it comes from a federal grant, which Lindsenbigler says is set to run out this year. Many of their fire engines and service trucks also have high mileage on them.

“Something has to give because of the call volume. we’re running just under 1,000 calls in Knox county alone. do the math, that’s more than one a day,” he said. 

While they have just one full-time employee, they service three counties: Knox, Blount, and Sevier.

The counties chip in. Knox County is set to give $175,000 in 2019 for service in 42 square miles within its borders, or roughly 8,000 addresses.

But, Linsenbigler says that’s 75,000 short of what is needed to meet the call demand in Knox County. 

The difference comes from grants and donation.

“There’s a need for some kind of revamping and funding issue. Is it to go with, let Rural Metro take over the whole county and provide those services, if that’s the direction the county wants to go, that’s great,” Linsenbigler added. 

Rural Metro is solvent according to Fire Chief Jerry Harnish.

Thursday, Rural Metro celebrated a ribbon cutting at its 18th and largest fire station in North Knox County.

He says the study leaves out the outcomes Knox County is getting now and the benefits from the current method of service.

While he concurs Knox County’s rural areas are seeing tremendous growth, he sees it as a win-win.

He explained their experience has been while expansion creates a need for more service, it also comes with economic growth to pay for the service. 

He said 98 percent of their funding comes from subscriptions, which are optional and are set by the size of a property. They received no money from the county, according to the study. While they serve 87 percent of Knox County, about half of their property owners pay the fee. 

Harnish did say growth in the future could “outstrip the ability of the subscription system” to sustain future growth. But, that’s a problem he said would be felt in the distant future. 

“If they’re not opting in, they’re choosing to pay higher amounts each year in insurance premiums,” he said about homeowners in the county who don’t pay Rural Metro’s fee. 

He believes a few changes could help solve the problems associated with the other two fire services:

  • Showing them how to run a subscription service 
  • Rigid enforcement of insurance rules so people aren’t getting a “free ride” 
  • legislation updating how they do billing to nonsubscribers – “from time to time it turns into contests between attorneys,” he said. 

Larry Clark feels very comfortable knowing Seymour Volunteer fire is looking out for him and his home.

He mays a voluntary $200 annual donation and says he gets a good insurance rate because of SVFD’s fire rating. 

“I’m not excited about the idea of that magic word taxes. Most people that I have come across want to work, go home, pay their property taxes and be left alone and they’re very pleased with their services, so I’m not convinced this is the route we need to go with,” Clark said. 

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