Lawrence County looks to assign Hoxie Fire Department to "inactive" fire district

Egypt Fire Protection

EGYPT, AR (KAIT) - The Hoxie Fire Department may be assigned to provide local fire protection to residents in southeast Lawrence County, according to the director of the Lawrence County Office of Emergency Services.

The area had been previously covered by the Egypt Fire Protection District, but Lawrence County Judge Dale Freeman declared the district to be "inactive" in the Lawrence County portion under Act 880 of 2011.

The district still operates a portion of Craighead County, according to Don Scruggs, Egypt mayor and president of the Egypt Fire Protection District.

The quorum court will discuss the issue at upcoming meetings and a public meeting will be planned.

In 2006, the Egypt Fire Protection District signed an agreement in Craighead County with the Bono and Cash Fire Departments. Under the agreement, Bono and Cash would send firefighters to cover the area.

However, the fire district did not sign such an agreement with fire departments in Lawrence County, a Region 8 News investigation discovered. Officials in Lawrence County said such an agreement does not exist.

Scruggs supplied Region 8 News with a copy of the 2006 contract, which divided a portion of Act 833 money among the Cash and Bono Fire Departments in Craighead County. Egypt lost their fire department due to manpower, but the district remained intact and contracted services to Bono and Cash, according to Scruggs.

Freeman declared the Lawrence County half of the district "inactive" earlier this month.

With the declaration, the quorum court and judge will be able to reallocate funds to the Hoxie Fire Department under Act 833.

Buddy Williams, director of the Lawrence County Office of Emergency Services, said the Hoxie Fire Department has been covering the disputed portion of Lawrence County for years.

Act 833, which was passed in 1992, allows county governments to divide a portion of a tax on insurance premiums among volunteer fire departments to make certain improvements.

Under state law, Craighead County receives 2.91% of the statewide funding. Lawrence County receives .95% of the funding.

Kendall Snyder with the Arkansas Office of Fire Protection Services told Region 8 News that the Intergovernmental Cooperation Council, consisting of various civic leaders, determines how the money is divided.

In Egypt's case, Act 833 money would only go to the Egypt Fire Protection District in Lawrence County if the county recognized the department. Williams said Lawrence County did not enter into the same 2006 agreement as fire departments in Craighead County.

Snyder said the Act 833 money cannot be distributed to another county. However, a department may draw funds in two counties if both counties recognize the department.

Snyder said Lawrence County could receive $14,400 in unclaimed Act 833 money. The county can divide the money based on their needs once the money is distributed.

Snyder also said the Arkansas Department of Emergency Management received a "new resolution and distribution" method from Craighead County to remove the Egypt Fire Protection District from the Act 833 distribution List.

Snyder said ADEM has not received a similar resolution from Lawrence County, which is why the money was not claimed.

Lawrence County is also looking to remove $25 fee for fire protection services from property tax bills.

After Scruggs issued a notice to residents in the fire district, Williams issued the following statement:

"On Tuesday the Lawrence County Office of Emergency Services held a meeting with representatives from Lawrence County including the Lawrence County Tax Collector Stephanie Harris, Hoxie Fire Chief Chris Ditto, Egypt Mayor Don Scruggs and the Bono Fire Chief. Also involved in the meeting via conference call was Kendell Snyder, State Fire Coordinator. The meeting was concerning the future of the Lawrence County part of the former Egypt Fire District. In February of 2016 the Lawrence County part of the former district was declared inactive in accordance to Act 880 of 2011 by the Lawrence County Judge Dale Freeman. By doing this it allowed Act 833 grant money assigned to the former district to be divided by the State of Arkansas among the remaining fire departments in Lawrence County. According to state regulations on the Act 833 funding this money can not be transferred to another county.  During the process of this our office was contacted by the Lawrence County Tax Collector's Office and we were told that the Egypt Fire Protection District was still collecting a service fee of 25 dollars per year per resident that was added onto the property taxes. The Collector's Office said that numerous complaints had been voiced by residents about this fee. The fee was enacted in the 1984 ordinance establishing the Lawrence County part of the former Egypt Fire District and must be removed by the Lawrence County Quorum Court.  During the meeting Mayor Scruggs produced a contract between the former Egypt Fire Protection District and the Bono and Cash Fire Departments from 2007 turning their former district over to those departments for coverage. This contract was not signed by anyone in Lawrence County and no ordinance was passed in Lawrence County by the Quorum Court so this paperwork has no merit, this was forwarded to the county attorney. The former district consist of an estimated 110 residents in Lawrence County, for the past several years the Hoxie Fire Department has serviced this area with assistance from the Bono Fire Department. Our intentions are to have the Quorum Court remove the service fee from the property taxes and assign the area to the Hoxie Fire Department. The county attorney is in the process of drawing up the correct legal ordinances and these along with a public meeting will be presented at a future date. During our meeting Mayor Scruggs was ask what the former Egypt Fire Protection was doing with the service fee collected from Lawrence County residents since the fire department has not existed since 2007, his open response in the meeting was the money was being used to keep up the old building and truck and that equipment was being used by the Cash Fire Department. Cash Fire Department has never provided any coverage for the Lawrence County side of the former district, only Bono and Hoxie. Any reference to the 1984 Ordinance creating the Lawrence County part of the Egypt Fire Protection District can on be reassigned to another fire district by vote of the Lawrence County Quorum Court, not the Craighead County therefore it is our opinion that this so called contract is not legal. Fire Chief Chris Ditto from the Hoxie Fire Department stated his department has made the majority of response calls to the area in question in the last several years but added he appreciated the mutual aide provided by the Bono Fire Department in the past.  Our statement simply says, our residents are paying a fee to the former Egypt Fire Protection District that does not physically exist anymore, funding from that fee has been used for equipment not used to service Lawrence County residents and therefore should not be collected. Any further changes to any district in Lawrence County should and will be done by the Lawrence County Quorum Court. It is our belief that these residence of Lawrence County will receive quality service from the Hoxie Fire Department in the Lawrence County section of the former Egypt Fire Protection District. We would like to thank County Judge Dale Freeman, State Representative James Ratliff, Lawrence County Tax Collector Stephanie Harris and Hoxie Fire Chief Chris Ditto for their contribution in this matter."

Scruggs told Region 8 News that Freeman “terminated” the Bono Fire Department from providing protection to residents in Lawrence County. Scruggs said Freeman “has decided to withdraw Lawrence County from the 1984 agreement with Craighead County which formed the Egypt Fire Protection District.”

Scruggs issued this release to Region 8 News:

"On February 11, 2016, in a letter to the Arkansas State Fire Coordinator from Lawrence County Judge Dale Freeman, Freeman declared that the Egypt Fire District in Lawrence County to be 'Inactive'. Because of that action, those services provided by the Bono Fire Dept. for the northern half, (the Lawrence County half), of Egypt Fire District have been terminated."

Scruggs said the decision does not affect residents who live in the southern half (Craighead County). Residents there will still receive protection from the Bono and Cash Fire Departments.

However, while the fire district does not have a fire department, the contract between the district, the Bono Fire Department and the Cash Fire Department helps offer protection to residents in both Craighead and Lawrence Counties, Scruggs said.

It is not known when the Lawrence County Quorum Court will bring the issue to a public forum.

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