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Fire departments still have burning need for funds
Fire Chief Lynn Curtis paid for repairs out of own pocket
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The countys seven volunteer fire departments provide a basic service for residents who live outside McMinnville city limits. The county provides $3,000 in annual funding to each department. Volunteer firefighters are shown battling a house fire near Viola earlier this year.

Harrison Ferry Volunteer Fire Department has an operational firetruck again after going nearly a month without one.
Fire Chief Lynn Curtis says he paid for the repairs out of his own pocket because the fire department is broke. He will reimburse himself when $3,000 in county funding is distributed this summer.
Such financial woes aren’t unique to Harrison Ferry, one of seven volunteer fire departments in the county. At Collins River Fire Department, Chief David Milstead says his department is barely surviving too.
“If it wasn’t for grants we’ve received, I don’t know how we’d make it,” said Milstead. “What the county gives us is not enough.”
Curtis says insurance costs alone well exceed the county’s annual funding of $3,000.
“Insurance premiums range for $9,000 a year to $12,000, depending on the fire department” said Curtis. “Ours is the lowest at $9,000.”
Added Mistead, “Our insurance is $12,000 a year and that’s for the bare minimum coverage. We have two buildings and seven firetrucks.”
Curtis says the insurance premiums cover firefighters in case they are injured while fighting a fire and firetrucks in case they are involved in an accident on the way to a fire, among other things. He said rural fire departments must pay for their own utilities, gasoline, and firetruck repairs.
“I’m pretty confident in saying there’s not a volunteer fire department in the county that could afford to pay for a $15,000 to $20,000 breakdown,” said Curtis, who showed a recent bill for $8,000 in repairs to one of his firetrucks.
County Executive Herschel Wells said any change the county makes to fire department funding will have to apply to all seven departments evenly. He said the measure could be something for the county Budget and Finance Committee to consider when it begins budget discussions in April.
“I think more subscribers need to participate and show their support,” said Wells. “I’m sure there are some things that will come up at budget time and we’ll have to see what we can do.”
Both fire chiefs say there wouldn’t be a problem if everyone paid their annual subscription fee, which is voluntary. Milstead says he’s been told by county officials in the past the answer to their financial problems should be more fundraising. It’s an idea he opposes.
“If I can’t get people to pay their $25 subscription fee, how am I going to get them to give me money by going door to door?” asked Milstead. “I’m knocking on the same doors that won’t pay their $25 in the first place.”
While many residents scoff at paying their annual fire department dues, Curtis says they gain huge financial savings on their homeowners insurance by having a fire department present. He said if the rural fire department were to close, homeowners insurance would soar.
He pointed to ISO insurance numbers to illustrate his point.
A homeowner with a $225,000 home in an area with an ISO rating of 10, the absolute worst, would pay $1,620 a year for home insurance. That same homeowner pays $920 a year when the ISO rating drops to 6.
“By paying $40 a year to have a volunteer fire department, you save $700 a year in insurance,” said Curtis referring to his yearly subscription fee. “It’s a tremendous insurance savings.”
Milstead believes one solution is adding a mandatory $5 charge on all Caney Fork electric bills. He says volunteer fire departments could get $4 and Caney Fork could keep $1 for processing. This would give all volunteer fire departments $48 a year from each household.
“We talked about doing something like that several years ago and it never happened,” said Milstead. “I don’t know why that wouldn’t be a logical solution.”
Currently each volunteer fire department receives $3,000 a year from the county, just a fraction of what it costs to operate. The rest of their operating money comes from voluntary subscription fees, which residents in their coverage area are asked to pay.
The problem, the fire chiefs say, is the annual subscription fee is often ignored. Curtis says only about 25 percent of Harrison Ferry residents pay each year. For Collins River, Milstead said the number is 39 percent.
 Curtis says there’s not a fire department in Warren County which collects more than half of its subscription fees.
“I’d like to see more people support us financially but it’s not happening,” said Curtis.