During last Wednesday’s meeting of the Knox Fiscal Court, the body approved a motion for the first reading of an amendment to ordinance 20160412-02 which established the “fire fee” in 2016. The amendments can be found at the bottom of this article.

Judge Executive Mike Mitchell stated before reading the amendments that the ordinance would stay the same otherwise. The ordinance was first passed in April 2016 and imposed a $35 fee on each tax bill in Knox County. 

Not everyone was thrilled with the fees, with some questioning their use. “We spend a lot of money there and it’s being neglected,” said former District 5 Magistrate Julio Cima in reference to Woodbine Fire Department Station 2 in July 2018. “What concerns me about it is it’s never been fixed. I don’t think they’re using it,” said Cima, who advised there are several issues with Station 2, including a missing heat and air unit and helicopter landing pad lighting. “They’re getting about $40,000 a year and I don’t see any return,” he said in regards to an unused station. 

While most departments managed to maintain timely records of their expenditures, not all did. Despite the reports being due by July 31, all the 2018 reports weren’t turned in until September 26 of that year.  Stinking Creek, whose finances have been under scrutiny lately, was among the last to submit.  

Major parts of the amendments to the ordinance are the stipulations that the fees cannot be used to pay firemen or a chief and that “each department shall elect a chief that meets all qualifications required by the Kentucky State Fire Commission, Kentucky Revised States and all Kentucky administrative regulations.” Although not stated, the changes appear to be aimed at Stinking Creek Chief Charles Freeland, who’s time as chief has been mired in controversy. In a February 2 statement to The Mountain Advocate, Judge-Executive Mike Mitchell said the following, “I am aware of some of the issues that the Stinking Creek Volunteer Fire Department is currently having at this time. However, I nor the Fiscal Court has any authority over the day to day operations or management of this department or any of the other Fire Departments in Knox County. They are regulated by the State Fire Commission. We are very concerned about the condition and direction this department is in at this time. The issues at the Stinking Creek Fire Department are due primarily to management practices at this time. I want to commend the other volunteer Fire Departments within Knox County that are doing an outstanding service for their districts: Artemus, Barbourville, Bailey Switch, East Knox, Popular Creek, Richland, West Knox and Woodbine. Going forward we (the Fiscal Court) are monitoring the events of this department closely. Our first concern is for the safety of the residents within this district or any other district within Knox County. These needs will be addressed accordingly when the need arises.”

A second reading of the fire fee ordinance amendments will occur during the March 24 fiscal court meeting.

The proposed amendments are as follows:

Section 4 part A: Allowable expenditures, monies received from subscription fees, shall only be used for: (1) building expenses; for purchase, maintenance or expansion of the department’s own buildings located within Knox County; (2) for purchase or maintenance of department vehicles; (3) required insurance costs (discussion brought about wording changes to cover a wider but more defined set of insurance costs that will be read during the second reading of the ordinance amendment); (4) department utilities; (5) fire suppression equipment and rescue equipment and supplies; (6) no fireman or chief are to be compensated from subscription fee funds; firefighter required trainings (discussion brought about wording changes to include training supplies); and postage and office supplies for the department.

The amendment also included section 4-part B, eligibility requirements to receive and disburse subscription fee monies: (1) Each department shall elect a chief that meets all qualifications required by the Kentucky State Fire Commission, Kentucky Revised States and all Kentucky administrative regulations; (2) each department shall maintain a current roster of qualified firefighters.

Section 4 part C, each department shall maintain a separate bank account to be used exclusively for fire subscription fees. A copy of the monthly statement of this account is to be submitted to the Knox Fiscal Court along with all accounting, and a spreadsheet provided by the Fiscal Court. (1) In the event the department fails to provide said accounting timely, all further subscription fee disbursements will be held until the accounting and supporting documentation is received and approved by the Knox County Fiscal Court. (2) The volunteer fire department shall be responsible for budgeting the funds collected yearly and reporting the findings to the Knox Fiscal Court for review. Reports are due by June 15 of each year. (3) The volunteer fire department shall budget to keep five percent as a savings mechanism. (4) Accounting – the volunteer fire department shall provide a detailed fire department audit accounting report to the Knox Fiscal Court on an annual basis, due by July 31 of each year; said accounting should show all deposits made, including the source of each deposit. Further, the accounting shall show each check disbursed, including the check number, the amount and to whom the check was written and information concerning the reason for the disbursement.

This is an ongoing, investigative story.

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