Fire chief: taxes, not fees, key to fighting fires


Reporter - Jason Hibbs
Photojournalist - Eric Ziglin

LEDBETTER, Ky. - It's a local story making headlines across the country: a house burned to the ground as firefighters watched. The South Fulton department let the home burn, because the homeowner, who lived outside the city, didn't pay the required $75 county fire protection fee.

A local fire chief says years ago he decided that's a position he never wanted to be in. So, he figured out a way to fund the department and make sure everyone gets protection at the same time.

"It was an old lime yellow truck, with a red light on top, home made tanker," Chief Terry Stringer said, recalling the humble beginnings of the department he helped create.

"It was exciting and it was a venture to get this thing going," he said.

In the 1970s, his mother's house burned to the ground and no one responded. There was no fire department in the area. Stringer wanted that to change.

"We had to have a fire department and we had to have one quick," he said.

So he started a department and funded it with a yearly fire protection subscription of $75. The first year, he raised $10,000.

But the second year, he only raised $6,000. He said people had no incentive to pay.

"If you don't pay it, you know the fire department's going to come anyway. Why pay it?"

So, as a last resort, he went before the county and asked to raise taxes in his district. The majority of folks voted yes. Today, over 30 years later, his department is thriving with two stations, three engines, all the proper equipment and lots of help.

"They're just wonderful, every last one of them is just precious," neighbor Phyllis Whitworth said.

She can't say enough about the firefighters. Years ago, when her house caught fire, the volunteers put it out and helped save some of her belongings.

She doesn't mind paying the taxes.

"It's better to pay that tax and keep up those trucks. They've got to keep up their equipment," Whitworth said.

That way when he gets a call the only question is, how fast can we get there?

"If someone's in trouble we're going to respond, no matter what," the chief said.

One of the reasons why no one opposed the tax is the immediate savings on homeowners insurance.

An agent with Tennessee Farm Bureau said in almost all cases, homeowners save money with fire protection, no matter how much they pay for that protection.