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Supervisors table VFD tax raise for now; funds needed to buy new radios

County supervisors will consider a small tax increase during upcoming budget discussions to help volunteer firefighters finance new radios.

Lincoln County Fire Coordinator and Emergency Management Director Clifford Galey, backed by a handful of fire chiefs and fire association officers, made the official request Monday on behalf of the Lincoln County Volunteer Firefighters Association, which is seeking an increase in its dedicated millage from 1 to 1.5 mills to help secure a nearly $400,000 loan for 230 new radios. Supervisors tabled the request for further study in a series of budget workshops they will hold between now and the start of the new fiscal year on Oct. 1.

“The volunteer firefighters are the only emergency service not on the new 700 system,” Galey said. “We can’t talk to any other emergency services in the city or the county at this time.”

The association is seeking a loan contract through the Brookhaven office of public finance company Government Capital Corp. for $390,340 for the purchase of 200 Motorola APX900 portable radios for firefighters and 30 APX1500 mobile units for the association’s 29 fire trucks and dispatcher. The portables are $1,411 each, while the mobiles are $1,745, with almost $56,000 for batteries, tuning and installation.

The association needs the tax increase to pay the note. Government Capital Corp. is offering a 5-year loan at 3.895 percent, with either annual payments of $87,422 or monthly payments of $7,170.

The new Motorolas would allow the county’s eight volunteer fire departments to communicate on the 700 MHz frequencies used by the Mississippi Wireless Information Network, established by law in 2005. The Lincoln County Sheriff’s Office, Brookhaven Police Department, Brookhaven Fire Department, Mississippi Highway Patrol and King’s Daughters Medical Center EMTs all use MSWIN radios after upgrading in recent years.

The volunteer firefighters still use high-band radios, which can’t connect on the 700 MHz frequency and have less range and signal penetration.

Galey said volunteer firefighters have been dispatched on 3,177 calls since Oct. 31 last year, including fires, vehicle accidents and medical calls. With an average of three firefighters spending three hours per call, the time spent would equate to more than $200,000 in minimum wage hours.

Galey called that amount a “donation” to the citizens of Lincoln County, and he tried to frame his request to supervisors as asking for help from the people, not the board.

Galey said his own fire department — East Lincoln — mails out donation forms to the community every year, asking for $50. If all the residents in the department’s area donated, East Lincoln would make $50,000, he said.

“But we get less than $2,500 per year. That won’t pay for the fuel that goes in the fire trucks,” Galey said. “This (millage increase) is the only way we see for it to be fair for every citizen.”

The fire association’s millage was last increased from .75 mills to one mill in 2007. The association’s mill generates a little more than $121,000 annually, with the added half-mill expected to bring in another $60,000. The association would have to pay for the remaining $20,000.

Supervisors have been delicate with funding requests in recent months, and Monday was no different.

District 5 Supervisor Doug Falvey questioned Galey about grant funding and the number of mobile units the association wants to buy — Galey said some of the radios could be substituted for pagers to save costs, but he and other association members have been unable to find grants to cover radio purchases.

Falvey also wanted to know if the association had any money in its fund to contribute to the purchase, but Galey said a few of the county’s eight volunteer fire departments couldn’t spare any cash.

“The thing we’re faced with is, what good will it do to spend money on these radios and we can’t even get to the customers because the bridge is out,” Falvey said. “You said you haven’t had an increase since 2007, but the county hasn’t had an increase in the fuel tax since 1985.”