As residents to the west contemplate their options for future fire services, annexation into the city of Mobile seems to be gaining the most traction so far — even if there doesn’t appear to be an appetite for new residents among a majority of city councilors.
As Lagniappe has reported, the city has been working to reduce some of the services the Mobile Fire Rescue Department (MFRD) historically provided in the three-mile police jurisdiction outside its corporate limits.
State law allows cities with more than 6,000 residents to cut respective jurisdictions in half, but two proposals from Mayor Sandy Stimpson’s administration to reduce the area city services are extended to have been voted down by the Mobile City Council.
Instead, the city has gradually rolled back some of its services.
The Mobile Police Department still responds throughout the entire three-mile jurisdiction, but MFRD has turned all medical calls in the area over to the Mobile County Emergency Medical Service, and the Theodore Volunteer Fire Department has taken over fire protection in that area.
As MFRD continues to pull its resources closer to the city, it’s left two areas facing the possibility of having no fire protection other than what the city has continued but isn’t required to provide. Those include Hollingers Island and a much-more-populated area in West Mobile.
That 13-square-mile region has a population of roughly 9,000 residents who’ve been trying to figure out who will fight their fires since February. Mobile County Commissioner Jerry Carl, whose district includes the area, has been helping spearhead the conversation.
“This is not an easy issue, but it’s something that we can come together and figure out as a community,” Carl said. “There seem to be so few things left in this country, especially here recently, that’s our choice, but you do get a choice in this.”
Recently, committees of residents have formed to gather information and support for what they believe is the best path forward. The fruits of those efforts were displayed for the first time at a March 14 community meeting at the Living Word Church in Dawes.
While several possibilities for securing fire services have been discussed, three ideas appear to have the most momentum among the residents — annexation into the city of Mobile, establishing a standalone fire district with its own department or calling the city’s bluff and doing nothing.
“What’s the driver for change? Nothing has changed. The law hasn’t changed,” Tink Wilkinson, chairman of the Committee to Maintain the Status Quo, said. “There are at least seven public schools in our area. One of them, Baker High School, is almost across the street from a fire station. Do you think the city of Mobile or the school board is going to allow MFRD to abandon those schools or this church? I don’t think so.”
Even though Baldwin County Sen. Chris Elliot has a bill pending in Montgomery that would do away with police jurisdictions throughout the state, Wilkinson said there’s been significant opposition to that bill from city and county leaders in the local area and beyond.
Public Safety Director James Barber has publicly said on several occasions that city officials will continue to provide service until the issue is resolved. This week, he said that would still be true even if residents elect the “status quo” option and do nothing to resolve the issue.
However, Barber did note the services could be ended at any time under the law, calling it a “political decision” that any city administration could make in the future.
“A mayor could turn it on, and a mayor could turn it off,” he added.
More information about the “status quo” option can be found here:
For Annexation, Del Sawyer said his committee had been working to see what services would be gained by becoming citizens of Mobile and what that would cost residents in additional taxes.
If the area were annexed, Mobile’s 7-mil citywide property tax would be added to what homeowners already pay the county — bringing the total rate of property and educational ad valorem taxes to 63.6 mils. Sawyer said that would roughly translate to a $255 increase for most homeowners, but that wouldn’t take effect until five years after annexation at the earliest, though it could be as long as 10 years.
He also noted that sales taxes would also increase from 8 cents to 10 cents. For the trouble, Sawyer said residents would gain services like parks and recreation, sanitation, animal control, and homeowners associations would no longer have to fund things like electricity for street lights.
Whether its Elliott’s proposed legislation or a city decision, Sawyer argued something could easily upset the “status quo” at any time and leave residents without any fire protection.
He told the crowd at the meeting that annexation would result in the fastest transfer of fire services, provide the best value for residents’ tax dollars and give West Mobile a voice in city government for the first time.
“Eventually, something like that is going to happen. Municipalities are starving for income all over the state, and local government is doing a better job looking after our money,” Sawyer added to a few audible laughs from the crowd.
However, even if West Mobile residents were to go through the steps necessary to seek annexation, it would have to be approved by a majority of the Mobile City Council. So far, there’s been little-to-no evidence the necessary support exists.
Council Vice President Levon Mazie said there would need to be a more substantive proposal before the council for him to comment. He added that the council would review any request received but would have to research the financial implications before making a decision. Previously, Manzie has told Lagniappe he’d prefer to see Mobile grow within its borders before annexing new areas.
More information about the annexation option can be found here:
As for a fire district, EMT Max Cartwright said his committee focused on determining what it would take to start a fire department from the ground up. He said it would be expensive, but with financing options, a new district could be feasible with a $110 annual fee from residents.
According to Cartwright, that would generate roughly $900,000 a year, which could be used to make payments on trucks and equipment and cover operational and personnel expenses. He estimated it would leave the new fire district with roughly $43,000 after expenses.
The idea has also been floated to create a fire district and contract the city to provide the fire services.
Cartwright said he reached out to public safety officials in Mobile about what that might cost but hasn’t received a response. He said it currently costs the city approximately $2.6 million to provide fire service to the area and estimated a contract would be similarly priced.
More information about the fire district option can be found here:
More than 200 people attended the community meeting in Dawes, and at least 195 voted on which option they might prefer in an unofficial poll. It’s worth noting the poll was distributed by members of the committee supporting annexation into the city of Mobile.
About 68 percent voted in favor of annexation, 20 percent wanted to maintain the status quo and 10 percent thought creating a fire district was the best course of action. Sawyer said the poll was strictly informational and has no bearing on how the community will move forward.
Dale Liesch contributed to this report.
Correction: This story originally misstated the percentage of votes cast in favor of the “Status Quo” option as 40 percent. In fact, 20 percent (40 out of 198 votes) were cast support that option.
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