48 Investigates: Madison County volunteer fire chiefs call out chairman on funding

Updated: Nov. 14, 2019 at 10:54 PM CST
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MADISON COUNTY, Ala. (WAFF) - Volunteer fire chiefs in Madison County are sounding the alarm over funding levels in Madison County.

Three fire chiefs said Madison County Commission Chairman and Monrovia volunteer firefighter Dale Strong has used his influence to benefit Monrovia when the commission passes its budgets.

Monrovia currently leads all volunteer fire stations in county funding by more than $130,000.

Strong served on the Madison County Commission from 1996 to 2012 as District 4′s commissioner, representing Harvest, Monrovia, Toney, and Triana fire stations.

In 2012, Madison County elected him commission chairman.

Strong said the different funding levels are the result of property taxes- who pays them and how much.

He said Monrovia pays more in taxes, and thus gets more back.

He said he makes recommendations on funding as chairman, but the commission members vote on and pass the budget each year.

WAFF 48 News pulled fire department funding levels and requested tax information to get the full picture.

The Madison County Volunteer Fire Department website states the fire department funding comes from:

“... the Madison County Commission, through a 3 mil property tax levied on property owners living outside the city limits of Huntsville. They also receive some funds from the State Forestry Commission, the State Legislative Discretionary fund, and community fund-raisers.”

Strong said the majority of the funds come from the property tax.

Madison County Act 486 authorizes the county to levy a tax to fund fire districts.

It states the commission’s funding responsibilities exclude “any corporate municipality which does not request through resolution of its governing body to be made a part of and subject to the provisions of this act.”

Madison County distributes money to 18 fire departments with the majority responding to county fires. There are two exceptions to this: Madison and Green Mountain.

Madison Fire and Rescue is a full-time fire department funded by Madison city taxpayers. The county currently pays the department $11,000 annually (and has since FY2010).

Madison City Fire Police Chief David Bailey said in an email:

“We do provide fire protection to some county properties that lie in the county. These lie within the exterior boundaries of Madison City or adjacent to our boundaries. We also provide automatic response to structural fires in the Monrovia area.”

Madison’s spokeswoman Samantha Magnuson said city residents pay into the 3 mil property tax.

The 18 departments also include Green Mountain, which is within Huntsville City Limits.

Green Mountain Volunteer Fire Department Chief Russ Rawson said his volunteers operate the station on behalf of the city.

He said the Green Mountain VFD rents the station property from Huntsville, and does not receive funding from the city.

However, Huntsville Fire and Rescue does provide automatic aid in the event of a structure fire.

Rawson said this arrangement with Huntsville will continue until Green Mountain’s call volume increases.

Green Mountain is scheduled to receive $5,000 in FY2020 from the county (and has FY2009).

In Fiscal Year 2020, the county is planning to spend $1,636,820 on the 18 departments it funds (including Madison and Green Mountain).

9 volunteer fire departments (not including Madison or Green Mountain) have had their funding either go stagnant or gone down since the end of fiscal year 2013 (9/30/2013).

These include:

  • Toney
  • Killingsworth Cove
  • Bobo
  • New Market
  • Big Cove
  • Gurley
  • Keel Mountain
  • New Hope
  • Owens Cross Roads

7 volunteer fire departments have had funding increases since fiscal year 2013.

  • Hazel Green
  • Meridianville
  • Moores Mill
  • Central
  • Harvest
  • Monrovia
  • Triana

See the statistical breakdown in graphs below

Monrovia leads all departments with a $325,831 disbursement from the county in FY2020. Since FY2013, the commission has raised Monrovia’s funding by $120,585.

Total funding for all departments has increased by $314,374 in that time.

In November 2012, the county elected Strong commission chairman.

Monrovia has led all departments in funding every year since FY2007 (when its disbursement doubled from FY2006).

Here’s a current breakdown of the fiscal year 2020 funding:

Here’s a breakdown of Madison County fires station funding over time:

WAFF 48 News spoke to three fire chiefs who said they had concerns with their stations’ funding compared to Monrovia’s.

Chief Jimmy Maynard of Keel Mountain and Chief James Sandmeier of Killingsworth Cove both agreed to do an on-camera interview with WAFF 48 News.

A third chief declined, citing concerns of budgetary backlash against his station from Strong.

Keel Mountain and Killingsworth Cove are both currently funded at the bottom of the county, at $43,000.

Both stations have only seen an $18 funding increase since FY2011.

All three chiefs said a lack of manpower is a growing issue and they don’t have the funds to recruit with incentives.

Sandmeier said the new generation isn’t volunteering like its’ predecessors.

“Young people, they’re not into it. They’d rather write you a check, if you have a fundraiser, then actually put in the time and the effort,” he said.

“We get nothing, we get no pay, we get no rewards...It’s really hard to tell somebody 'Okay I need you to go to 200 hours to go to fire fighter 1, then I’d really like you to go to fire fighter 2 which is another 40 [hours]. It’s a big commitment."

Killingsworth Cove currently has 13 volunteers, including Sandmeier.

He said a funding increase could pay for training or insurance incentives to get his departments’ manpower up.

“Things like that make people stay. You have vested interest in it, right now there is not an interest other than your heart," he said.

Maynard echoed Sandmeier’s recruitment concerns and said $43,000 isn’t enough to replace the gear that keeps his fire fighters safe.

“Money is a big thing. We have damage to an engine, last couple times it’s cost us almost $20,000 a time to repair,” he said.

Both men said their stations are reliant on community fundraisers to help make up the gap.

They said an annual county disbursement of $55,000 to $60,000 would help them cover their basic costs, instead of the $43,000 they’re currently receiving.

They also expressed frustration with their funding in light of Monrovia’s.

Sandmeier said Monrovia’s gains are coming at others’ loss.

“I thought we were one county. I thought all our county residents deserved the same coverage, deserved the same services, but I guess not," he said.

“The chairman believes we have two counties, we have the west of the county and then we have every place else in Madison County.”

Sandmeier said he felt “betrayed” by Strong, a fellow volunteer fire fighter.

“I have gone to the county commission, and offered them other ideas to bring in some more revenue, and they’re not even interested," he said.

Sandmeier said the county should consider an additional volunteer fire department fee, and distribute funds to the departments to meet their operational needs.

Chairman Strong echoed the fire chiefs’ concerns about manpower and recruiting, but funding is based off the tax revenue of the community each station serves.

Strong said communities like Killingsworth Cove pay less than $43,000 in the 3 mil tax, and thus should not get more funding until more taxes are received.

He said Monrovia pays more, and gets more back.

“I think it’s easy to justify. You look at it, $587,000 was collected from that district. You return $325,000 that means you’re only getting 55 cents on return, of what the people are paying in on taxes,” he said.

Strong denied any ethical conflict between his roles as Commission Chair and Monrovia volunteer fire fighter.

“If it is [a conflict], and the ethics commission rules I can’t do it, I promise I’ll get a lot more sleep at night," he said.

He said all departments are given the minimum funding level of $43,000 to meet their needs.

Strong said the 3 mil tax brings in roughly $2.1 million, and Monrovia’s taxes represent 25% of that.

The night of the interview with Strong (Oct. 28) WAFF 48 News requested documentation from Madison County’s Chief Financial Officer Carol Long on how much money each volunteer fire district pays in the the 3 mil tax.

WAFF 48 News requested the documentation again on Oct. 30 and Nov. 4.

Long answered on Nov. 5, stating “I do not have this information. You would probably need to get that from the Tax Assessor or Tax Collectors office.”

WAFF 48 News filed a formal request with the Madison County Tax Assessor and the Madison County Tax Collector for the documentation on Nov. 5.

On Nov. 7, Madison County Tax Assessor Cliff Mann sent documents that reflected the total amount of money the 3 mil tax pulled in since 2006. He said his office does not possess a breakdown of how much each volunteer fire district pays in the tax.

On Nov. 12, the Madison County Tax Collector’s office sent similar documents, and also said it did not possess a breakdown of how much each volunteer fire district pays in the tax.

Long did provide documentation showing where roughly $1.9 million of the $2.1 million is being spent.

  • County Fire Marshal- $67,057
  • Madison County Association of VFD for insurance- $231,207
  • Madison County Association of VFD- $24,000
  • Fire Department disbursal- $1,636,820
  • Total: $1,959,084

She said the remaining difference is “due to various deductions that the tax collector is required to make before disbursing the funds to the county. I do not have that information – you will need to get it from the Tax Collector’s office.”

WAFF 48 News requested a breakdown of the deductions from the tax collectors office on Nov. 5.

The tax collector’s office responded on Nov. 12, but did not address the question of deductions.

Madison County Tax Assessor Cliff Mann said in an email:

“There are Assessor & Collector fees deducted from all property taxes. There can also be orders & corrections to bills that we do due to people proving exemptions they had failed to claim. So there are ongoing changes that may occur in the numbers, where its difficult to completely match it all up at a given point.”

Strong also said the fire department funding stagnancy is partially due to incorporated towns not paying the 3 mil tax.

He said New Hope, Gurley, Owens Cross Roads and Triana are all incorporated and do not pay the tax.

New Hope and Owens Cross Roads have both seen funding cuts in the last 10 years. Gurley has remained stagnant in that time, while Triana has only seen a $2,000 increase (from $41,000 a year to $43,000 in FY2019).

WAFF 48 News confirmed with town leadership in Triana and New Hope that residents do not pay into the 3 mil tax.

New Hope Mayor Butch Taylor said the city is funding the volunteer fire department $24,000 out of its general revenue fund.

Triana does not independently fund its fire station.

Leadership in Owens Cross Roads and Gurley have not yet returned a request for comment.

Strong said he has reached out to town leaders on the issue, but nothing has been been done.

“I believe in helping everyone, but the big thing is, you’ve got to be able to help yourself," he said.

He said he envisions a time where Madison County will eventually have to pay for full-time fire fighters, but another revenue stream would be needed. He said his "door is open to ideas.”

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