SCOPUS, Mo. -- In a meeting one board member described as tense at times, the new North Bollinger County Fire Protection District has appointed Bill VanDeven as its fire chief, opting for the former Patton chief over former Scopus chief Kris Wilfong.
VanDeven was elected on a vote of 3-1 with one board member abstaining. Board members Jeff Miles, Jo Dunbar and Dwight McMinn voted for VanDeven. Vice chairman Shane Welker voted for Wilfong and board member Sue Brewer abstained.
VanDeven will take over the fire district in its infancy -- it was approved by voters in November to combine the Scopus and Patton departments and set up a special fire tax to build more fire stations and make upgrades to equipment and vehicles.
About 20 community members attended the Dec. 7 meeting, held at the Scopus Fire Department, and a few spoke out about who they thought should be fire chief.
"The discussion went well," said McMinn, who also was assistant chief of the Patton Fire Department. "It was a little bit tense at times, but overall it went well."
McMinn said naturally the residents from the Scopus area wanted Wilfong and those from Patton wanted VanDeven. Others at the meeting said that the issue has become quite divisive and has created a rift in the two communities.
In the end, in McMinn's view, it came down to VanDeven's qualifications.
"Bill is a career firefighter and he has extensive training and is continuing his training," McMinn said. "He's great at a fire scene. He knows his stuff."
Both men are trained firefighters, though VanDeven is a full-time firefighter with the Cape Girardeau Fire Department, while Wilfong works at SEMO Tank in Perryville. McMinn said that VanDeven is also in the county quite a bit, considering that he works 10 days a month as a firefighter in Cape Girardeau and is in Bollinger County the rest of the time.
VanDeven said it's time to put the tension of the vote behind the district and to begin building a better department.
"Now it's the real uphill battle," VanDeven said. "I look forward to being chief. I realize it's hard for some people to take change better than others. We have to get the community to realize that there is no Scopus Fire Department and there is no Patton Fire Department anymore. That's hard for some people to accept, but it's about making a better department."
Wilfong said he didn't want to comment about the outcome of the election. But he said he intended to stay with the department.
"I'm not going to abandon the Scopus end of it," he said.
One of VanDeven's first tasks will be appointing two assistant fire chiefs, who then will have to be approved by the board. Wilfong said he wasn't opposed to that entirely.
"To be honest, I'd rather get back on the end of a nozzle instead of making administrative decisions," he said. "But if Bill wants me to do that, I guess I will."
In other business, the board set the district's first budget for 2005 at about $30,000. In its first year, the district won't see much from the fire tax because most of it won't be collected until December. But the Bollinger County assessor's office has told him to expect about $55,000 in the first full year that the tax is collected.
"So we're going to have to tighten our belts this first year and keep up our fund raising," VanDeven said.
Before the fire tax was approved, Patton Fire and Rescue relied on private fund raising and $35 dues that were paid by residents each year. But that only generated about $16,000 a year. Fund raising had fallen off and many people ignored their dues. No dues can be collected this year because of the institution of the tax.
The new tax rate for the fire district is 28 cents per $100 of assessed -- not appraised -- valuation of people's property. That would mean that a family with a $100,000 home would pay $53.20 a year to the fire district. If a family had a $50,000 home, it would pay $26.60 a year to the district as part of the fire tax.
Those who supported the fire district promise that residences, businesses and other property owners in the district will receive substantially improved fire and rescue services. The tax revenue would also allow both departments to make improvements.
The department's firefighters will remain volunteers and will not be paid.
The departments also plan to update and replace existing apparatus and equipment, renovate existing fire stations and build additional fire stations -- all of which would mean expanded coverage of areas and hopefully lower insurance rates for property owners.
"It's going to be touch and go," Wilfong said. "But we'll pull it off."