Different interpretations of law spark lawsuit over Diamondhead fire fees - WLOX.com - The News for South Mississippi

Different interpretations of law spark lawsuit over Diamondhead fire fees

By Danielle Thomas - bio | email

DIAMONDHEAD, MS (WLOX) - A coast attorney says there is something "fishy" about how the Diamondhead Fire Protection District handles hundreds of thousands of dollars collected from property owners each year. William Kulick represents four residents suing the fire district over what they call illegal monthly fees; however, district officials say they have nothing to hide.

Attorney William Kulick says when he looks at the two Diamondhead fire stations, he can't see where 15 years and millions of dollars in monthly fees have been spent. Residents pay $20 a month in fire fees, while businesses pay on a sliding scale based on square footage.

"So how much money have they spent over the years of this money that's come in," asked Kulick. "Where did it go? I haven't seen their budgets yet, and that's the kind of thing that I'll be trying to get during the lawsuit."

The Diamondhead Fire  Protection District did share its records with WLOX. In last year's $1.3 million dollar more than $970,000 dollars came from fees paid by property owners. While about $230,000 came from county taxes.

"Taxes are what the state government and the county government have set up to fund fire district," said Kulick. "The fire protection district can assess fees for services rendered, not for just sitting waiting to answer a phone or come answer a call as to whether or not your house is burning down. Now they can charge that resident for water or fuel or so forth for coming to fight the fire. That's allowed by law, but that isn't what the fire protection district is doing."

Fire District officials say they spent a year trying to get clarification for the vague "services rendered" clause in state law.

Pat DeStefano is chairman of the commission that oversees the district.

"Depends on how you define services rendered. We provide a protection service," DeStefano said. "We have to be there before something happens in order to react to that incident. "

DeStefano says another statute allows the district to charge to maintain the system. Firefighters say if fees go away and only tax revenue is left, the quality of fire protection would suffer.

"We're currently manned with four firefighters on staff at all times. You figure how many people you can employ on $235,000 a year plus by fire trucks that cost a half a million dollars, plus maintaining them," said DeStefano. "You can see we might be able to employ one maybe two people. Maybe have one truck if we're lucky. Not the kind of people you want to show up at your house if it's on fire or if you're having a major medical problem."

Diamondhead Fire Protection district officials say their expenses ran nearly $60,000 dollars over budget. They say not charging fees could lead to a higher fire rating and cost property owners more in insurance.

                               Diamondhead Fire Protection District Budget

INCOME (F/Y 07-08)

By Category

% of Total

 

 

 

Residential Fire Fees

$882,904.43

64.66%

  

Commercial Fire Fees

$87,903.07

6.44%

4 mil from County

$227,994.21

16.70%

Fire Insurance Rebate

$22,580.00

1.65%

  

Gaming Tax

$21,077.44

1.54%

  

Late Fees

$10,229.25

0.75%

Interest

$13,397.63

0.98%

Grants

$98,601.59

7.22%

  

Miscellaneous

$704.64

0.05%

Total Income

$1,365,392.26

100.00%

EXPENSES (F/Y 07-08)

By Category

% of Total

 

Personnel w/ Benefits

$947,821.86

66.61%

Insurance (Real Property)

$29,993.00

2.11%

Equipment Purchases

$101,280.89

7.12%

  

Maintenance & Repairs

$4,817.82

0.34%

  

Utilities

$17,604.60

1.24%

Gas & Oil

$10,790.43

0.76%

Legal Fees

$41,441.58

2.91%

Miscellaneous

$961.41

0.07%

Office & Operating Supplies

$26,439.63

1.86%

Interest

$5,735.75

0.40%

 

Station 2

$175,957.84

12.37%

Debt Service/Capital Expenditures

$60,000.00

4.22%

Total Expense

$1,422,844.81

100.00%

 

Net Profit / Loss

-$57,452.55

©2009 WLOX. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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