published Thursday, November 28th, 2013

Marion County fire funding questions to be sent back to committee

JASPER, Tenn. — The squabble over funding for Marion County's rural volunteer fire departments, rescue squad and emergency management agency will continue for at least two more months.

The County Commission this week failed to vote on a budget amendment to restore funds in prior years. The commissioner referred the issue back to the finance committee.

During a budget crunch in 2011, the board cut out all the $193,000 it had previously given the volunteer organizations each year. Since then, the board has reinstated 75 percent of that money.

Commissioners were prepared to restore the rest, about $36,000, for the fire departments and rescue squad before members discovered the amendment didn't include extra money for the emergency management agency.

County Mayor John Graham said the extra money would come from the fund balance, but the budget amendment under consideration Monday was "not adequate for some of the discussion" that occurred during the meeting.

Commissioner Tommy Thompson said the county's fund balance is well over $5 million, and there is "something wrong with this picture" if the board can't vote to restore the money for all of the organizations.

"We need to put [emergency management's] 25 percent back, too," he said. "We never should have done this to start with."

Finance committee Chairman Don Adkins said the group met with a representative from the University of Tennessee's County Technical Assistance Service last week and got "guidance and advice" on the funding issues.

County leaders have been working to update the distribution formula for the organizations for months, but Adkins said the finance committee still doesn't have enough information from many of the county's 13 volunteer fire departments to settle on a process.

"A lot of work has been put into this," he said. "Over the past 20 years, we really didn't know how we got to that determination of the formula that was used to fund each of our volunteer fire departments on an annual basis."

Adkins said more work has to be done on the formula, and that will be "time-consuming going forward."

Some departments have provided bank statements, he said, while two have not provided any information at all.

Adkins didn't identify which departments had failed to divulge their financial records, but he said county leaders have no idea now what their financial status might be.

Also, officials discovered recently that at least two departments are not registered with the state fire marshal's office.

The board will address the funding issue again at its next meeting on Jan. 28.

Ryan Lewis is based in Marion County. Contact him at ryanlewis34@gmail.com.

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