Residents in two small areas of southern Mobile County will go to polls Nov. 7 to vote in two separate referendums related to local fire districts — one aiming to establish a new district outside of Bayou La Batre and another that could double the rates of fire service in Grand Bay.
In Grand Bay, the premise of the referendum is fairly simple: People within the existing fire district there will vote for or against a proposed increase in the service they’re assessed by the Mobile County Revenue Commission to fund the district.
Volunteer fire districts in the state of Alabama are permitted to levy a voluntary fee on property taxes collected within their districts. The Grand Bay Volunteer Fire Department is governed by two independent boards, the district board and a fire department board.
Currently, the fire service fee in Grand Bay is $35 per year, which generates around $130,000 annually for the fire district. The proposed increase would take the yearly service rate up from $35 to $70 per year — doubling the money available to the Grand Bay VFD and marking the first increase in fire service fees in more than 25 years.
Last week, Mobile County Commissioner Jerry Carl, whose district includes Grand Bay, said he supported the increase and thinks “they’re doing a good job.” He also noted that if the service rate were to increase to $70, it would be in line with other volunteer fire districts in Mobile County.
For those in the Semmes Fire District, the current rate is $75, which is the same fee assessed in the Seven Hills Fire District.
Lagniappe reached out to District President Tony Baggett seeking comment on the petition to increase the service and how any new revenue would be used, but did not receive a response by press deadline.
However, board members have said they intend to answer any questions at the last meeting before the vote is held, which will be at 6:30 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 2, at the North Fire Station. The referendum itself will be held Tuesday, Nov. 7, at Friendship Baptist Church in Grand Bay.
While the vote in Bayou La Batre will also be held on Nov. 7, the issue is slightly different, as a majority “yes” vote would formally establish a new fire district just outside of the city limits.
It’s something city officials have been working on for some time because it could allow fees for fire service to be collected from residents in the district, which could potentially include as many as 2,000 residences and businesses in Irvington, Dixon Corner and portions of Coden.
While the Bayou La Batre Fire Department continues to respond to fires and emergencies from those areas, the city receives no funding to do so. Commissioner Carl said the referendum vote set for next month is the last phase of a plan the city’s legal team has worked to put together to address the issue.
Unlike other districts, which collect fees to fund operations for all volunteer departments, anything the new district generates would go specifically toward enhancing the BLBFD, which employs certified firefighters and EMS workers as paid city employees.
However, the funding generated would still be overseen and distributed by the district, and no fees would be assessed until 2018 at the earliest.
If approved, the district would collect a yearly service fee of $75 for each business or residence in the district. The City Council has already seated the board that will oversee the district, and President Emma Lou Edwards said it’s projected to generate roughly $150,000 for BLBFD.
Edwards said BLBFD has already set up a substation closer to the area the fire district would encompass, but the additional revenue would make it possible to keep another fire engineer and trained personnel there 24 hours a day.
That would mean putting everyone in the district in a five-mile radius of fire service, which Edwards said was “a big plus.”
The election is open only to registered voters living within the boundaries of the proposed BLBFD outside the city limits and will be held Nov. 7 at the Coastal Response Center in Coden. For more information, contact City Hall at 251-824-2171.
*An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that the annual fire service fee for property owners in the Seven Hills Fire District was $105. In actuality, that yearly fee is $75, which is in line with other similarly-sized districts in Mobile County.