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FORT SMITH -- Certain fire departments in Sebastian County have been approved for a new structure expected to help them better cover their operational costs.

Last week, the Sebastian County Quorum Court approved an ordinance authorizing the conversion of four rural fire departments from 501(c)(3) nonprofit organizations to fire protection districts. This includes the Big Creek and Riverdale fire departments in Lavaca and the Milltown-Washburn and Greenwood Rural fire departments in Greenwood.

Sebastian County Judge David Hudson wrote in a memo that the primary goal and motivation for a nonprofit fire organization to convert to a fire protection district is to have the department's operation cost assessed, levied and collected on county real estate tax statements by the county tax collector.

Hudson said in an interview on Thursday that Arkansas legislation provides a procedure that, upon passage of an ordinance, fire department dues can be placed on real estate property tax statements.

"The normal procedures are that the fire departments, through different options, send statements to the property owners ... in their assigned district, and it's voluntary for property owners to pay the fire dues each year," Hudson said. "... I think that one of the fire departments stated that their percentage of collection's about 30%, so it's going to vary based on area."

This different method of billing and collection, Hudson said, should positively impact the revenues supporting the operation of the fire departments.

"And so, it should enhance the ability of these fire departments to take care of their operational costs, which are significant, including obtaining and maintaining fire apparatus, as well as the training and the protective gear ... for the firefighters," Hudson said. "So there are significant ongoing operating costs that justify the residents in a fire district to financially support these volunteer fire departments."

The fire departments covered in the ordinance each requested by petition to the Quorum Court to be converted to fire protection districts. Copies of the petitions included in the meeting packet noted that they were received on July 6.

Arkansas Code states that the governing body of a fire department that seeks to become such a district will make the request by petition to the quorum court of the county it serves, or counties if applicable. The quorum court will grant the petition to convert the fire department within 60 days of receiving the petition. In the event there are issues or questions the quorum court would like addressed in the petition, the quorum court will respond to the fire department in writing within this 60-day period, although it will, in no event, delay this period.

THE ASSESSMENTS

The ordinance states that, in accordance with Arkansas law, all annual fire protection district assessments extended and levied are payable when ad valorem real property taxes are payable. These assessments will be listed by the county as an involuntary collection beginning with the next ad valorem real property tax statement, with a property owner to pay the assessments as a prerequisite to paying the taxes.

The county collector will report delinquent assessments annually to the fire protection district's board of commissioners for informational purposes, and add a 10% penalty to the delinquent assessment amount. This will be collected in the same manner as delinquent ad valorem real property taxes.

The board of commissioners, who the ordinance states will be elected by qualified electors residing in the district at a public meeting called by the county judge, will appoint three assessors to assess the annual benefits that will accrue to the real property in the district from the providing of fire protection services.

"The board of commissioners may assess a flat fee per parcel of land, per acre or per landowner," the ordinance states. "The board of commissioners may establish a different flat fee for the classification of property as commercial, residential or as unimproved property. The board of commissioners shall once a year order the assessors to reassess the annual benefits of protected property in the fire protection district, and the annual benefits may be raised or lowered as fire protection services benefiting the property change."

Hudson said the four petitioning fire department districts contain a total of 3,312 residential structures, 93 commercial structures, and 3,858 real estate parcels.

Hudson also provided an estimate of the annual revenue each department would generate after the conversion, albeit one assuming a flat levy of $35 per residential or commercial structure. Taking a 3% county collector's commission into account, Greenwood Rural would stand to gain a net amount of $32,762, Big Creek would get $49,533, Milltown-Washburn would get $26,719 and Riverdale would get $6,586.

However, Hudson wrote in his memo that the actual revenue will be determined by the fire district board of commissioners who will be elected and the assessment by the three assessors for each district to determine the annual levy.

WHAT'S NEXT?

With the passage of the ordinance, Hudson wrote in his executive report, that it would be published by the county clerk in the Times Record, a Fort Smith-based newspaper. A public meeting will also be set to review the ordinance and elect the board of commissioners for the four fire protection districts.

Hudson's report stated that a notice of the public meeting would also be published with the guidelines to submit nominations to serve on the boards. These nominations must be presented to the County Clerk's Office before the meeting so that ballots can be printed for the election.

"The fire protection district levy will be required to be completed and submitted to the county clerk, county treasurer [and] county assessor by Dec. 18, 2020," the report states. "The fire protection district levy collected in 2021 will be for 2021 fire protection services. The levy for fire protection service is not in arrears like the tax millage levy."

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