by Mel Griffith
Those of us in the rural fire district will be experiencing a considerable increase in the fire tax next year. This increase is necessary in order to continue and improve our fire protection. The tax is actually being raised back up to about what it was several years ago. It was reduced for a few years because there was surplus money in the fire fund. The fire department has been operating partly on money previously saved up. The new tax rate at 42 cents per hundred is still cheaper than the fringe area rate of 46 cents.
Bradley County has invested considerable money in developing a first-class fire department in the last 15 years. Beginning with no fire department in 1992, the county now has nine stations, 15 paid firefighters, millions of dollars worth of equipment, and upwards of a hundred volunteers.
Beginning in 1978, the county contracted with the City of Cleveland to provide fire service throughout the county. Because of public dissatisfaction with service provided by the city, a citizens group was formed in 1992 to lobby for the establishment of a county fire department. The county commission of that time formed a committee to recommend improvements in fire protection. This committee recommended several courses of action, all of which were rejected by the commission, which then appointed a second committee consisting of a citizen from each district to continue studying fire protection. A four member majority of this committee recommended that the county not start its own fire department and enter a ten year contract with the city for fire protection. Three members of the committee submitted a minority report recommending that the county start its own fire department. In early 1993 the commission adopted the minority report and agreed to provide stations and equipment for communities that organized fire departments. Seven communities did so. In recent times Station 8 was established with a full-time staff and located downtown and the Charleston Volunteer Fire Department which was the only non-Cleveland station is existence in 1992 joined the county fire department as station 9.
Even though the county now has nine stations of its own, county citizens in the fringe area are still paying the city of Cleveland about $1.6 million a year to provide fire protection. The fringe area consists of any area outside the city that is within five miles of a city station. The contract with the city expires in the middle of 2010. At least a year before that time the County Commission must decide whether to renew the contract or have the Bradley County Fire Department protect the entire county. Since the cost for labor to staff a fire station full time is about $400,000 per year, ending the contract with the city would provide funds to staff four fire stations full time. With one already staffed full time, and several volunteer stations, that should provide fire protection at least as good as what we have now. Providing adequate coverage may require building at least two new fire stations. It may be desirable for the County Commission to decide soon whether the contract with the city will be renewed so that there will be time for adequate planning if the contracted is to be ended.