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Questions surround fire district plans

People who live in the 22-square-mile Seminole fire district are set to elect a board of directors Nov. 8, the first time that board has been chosen by the public.

One of the first big issues the new board is expected to face could put it out of business.

The board will decide if it wants to merge the Fire Department with the city of Seminole or if it wants to try to become a special taxing district. If it merges with the city, the Seminole City Council would be the department's governing body and the board of directors would be out, even though the city covers only about an eighth of the fire district.

Here are some of the questions that have been raised in recent days about what is happening with the fire district and what the changes might mean:

Wasn't getting an elected board supposed to fix the Fire Department's problems?

Yes and no.

The county and people within the fire service pushed to get a publicly elected board for democratic and legal reasons. The Fire Department has operated for 35 years as a private, non-profit corporation. Now, it has a $7-million budget, paid by taxpayers through contracts with the city of Seminole and the county.

Officials decided it was time the people paying the bills had a voice in the department, which had been choosing its leaders from within the ranks of its volunteers and paid firefighters.

Legally, it looks like just having an elected board for the private corporation may not be sufficient.

Attorneys for the department say there are questions about the way the pension plan is set up. It's complicated, but the bottom line appears to be that the department needs to be run by a government _ like the city or a special taxing district _ in order to meet the federal government's requirements for pension plans.

How does the Fire Department become a government?

There are two primary options. One, the department, which serves the city of Seminole and a large part of the unincorporated area around it, could be absorbed by the city. The county would then contract with the city for fire protection for the unincorporated area.

The second option would be for the state Legislature to make the fire district a special taxing district. (Approval by the voters in the district also would be required.) The taxing district would have all the powers of a municipal government, including the power to levy taxes, set impact fees, borrow money and condemn property.

Which option is better?

Until recently, the interim fire board, appointed by the county to serve until the election, had been moving toward a special taxing district. A committee had been drafting proposed legislation.

But recently, County Administrator Fred Marquis has said he would rather see the department merge with the city, especially since Seminole will be hiring a professional city manager in the spring. Mayor Holland Mangum has said he thinks that would be possible.

Both options have their pluses and minuses. With the city option, residents outside the city limits might not have as much say in how the department is run. But some people say the last thing that's needed is another government that can levy taxes.

A final decision isn't expected until after the elected board is seated Dec. 1.

So how will this affect me?

Probably very little. No matter which option is chosen, the same people will respond to emergency calls using the same equipment.

There's some speculation that the special district might draw more money for the pension from the state, possibly reducing fire taxes. But no one seems to have solid numbers to back that up.

People who live in the city currently pay for fire services as part of their city tax. That would continue under either option.

Those who live in the unincorporated area pay a fire tax that is about $3.20 for each $1,000 of assessed taxable property value. If the department merges with the city, the unincorporated area would continue to pay that tax to the county.

What control would the county retain?

The county holds the purse strings, so it would keep a lot of control.

Right now, the Fire Department submits its budget to the county for approval. In a merger with the city, that process would remain because the county would contract with the city to serve the unincorporated area. The county would control about 90 percent of the budget, now about $7-million.

In a special taxing district, which under the draft proposal could tax up to $5 per $1,000, the county would have review of only the Emergency Medical Services budget, which is about 20 percent of the total.

How would changes affect the fire department employees?

Their pensions would become secure under either option, something that has troubled employees.

With a special district, the employees ultimately would work for the elected fire board. With a city merger, they would become city employees.

Details would have to be worked out, but officials have said they would expect some areas of operations to merge under the city option, such as accounting and maintenance and some staff reduction by attrition.

How would a merger affect the city?

It suddenly would become a bigger operation. The city now has a budget of about $3.5-million and about 40 employees. The Fire Department has a $7-million budget and about 100 employees.

The fire chief would work for the city manager, who will work for the City Council.

A fire advisory board likely would be set up, similar to the library board, to review the budget and make recommendations to the City Council.

The city apparently would assume liability for the actions of the Fire Department, which now carries its own liability insurance.

When could something happen?

No decision will be made until after the new board takes office Dec. 1.

A merger with the city could happen as soon as the transition details are ironed out.

A special taxing district would have to be approved by the Legislature. The new board won't have time to decide in time for this legislative session. If the district is approved in the 1996 session, it could go to the Seminole area voters in the fall of 1996.