Volunteer fire departments serving Letcher County’s rural areas may soon ask residents they serve to pay annual subscription fees for fire protection. Those who choose not to pay the fees would be “billed for services rendered” if firefighters respond to an alarm at their home.
In a statement appearing in this week’s edition of The Mountain Eagle, the rural fire departments say they are being forced to change how they raise operating money because of cuts in funding from the cash-strapped Letcher County Fiscal Court, which now allots each of them $11,000 a year, and strict limits on how they can spend their yearly stipend from state government.
The departments say they now receive about $15,200 each in state and local funding, but face annual operating costs of up to $25,000 per year.
“The local volunteer fire departments have been working hard with current and future politicians to develop a solution,” says the statement by the fire departments. “Our current discussion is a ‘fire due.’ It would work like a membership fee. If you pay your yearly dues, you will be considered a member. If we respond to your residence and you have not paid your dues, you will receive the same service, however, you will be billed.”
Continues the statement, “The amount of funding available to volunteer fire departments is near non-existent when compared to our operational cost. Currently we are given $11,000 from our fiscal court, all of which may be applied to bills. We also receive another $11,000 from the Kentucky Fire Commission, $4,200 may be applied to bills and the remaining $6,800 can only be used for fire gear and equipment. Therefore, $15,200 per year may be used for bills.
“Our insurance premiums are upwards of $11,000 per year. Our electric bills are approximately $5,000 to $6,000 per year, which we need to keep trucks from freezing in the winter. Internet, which is required to do paperwork for the state, costs around $1,000 per year. Fuel bills can vary, depending on run volume, $1,000 to $2,000 per year. Water bills are around $500 per year, and finally, our telephone is around $1,000 per year. These are the bare minimum bills and aren’t factoring in the general upkeep of trucks (oil, parts, etc.).
“Our operational cost can range from $20,000 to $25,000 per year, and we only receive $15,200 from the county and state. The local volunteer departments are in dire need of funding. We are forced to rely on hot dog dinners, roadblocks, haunted houses and other fundraisers to make ends meet. The truth is, hot dog dinners will only go so far. As the years pass, bills continue to rise and we must create some type of long-term solution, not just a Band-Aid to get by another few months.”
The joint statement also reminds citizens that the rural fire departments do much more for their communities than being available to fight fires.
“During cold weather and power outages, we open as warming shelters with generators paid for by fire department fuel. We deliver medicines, oxygen, and food during snow and storms. We spend countless nights and hours volunteering our free time, keeping you safe while you sleep, from forest fires and floodwaters. We loan tables and chairs for free, we provide education to the public, we provide fire alarms and of course, we also provide fire and EMS protection. That protection helps to give the citizens a lower homeowner insurance premium. If the fire departments are forced to close, insurance premiums may increase 50 to 75 percent.”
The statement from the rural fire departments does not mention how much the annual fee would cost. However, sources familiar with the issue say the departments are leaning toward charging $50 per household each year.