Scott County town looks to merge with county district to save fire protection services

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

VANDUSER, Mo. -- As mayor of the Village of Vanduser, Harold Graviett said one of his top priorities is to ensure there is quality fire protection for the town's approximately 300 residents.

That's why, although the town's fire department, known as a "fire club," is not under his jurisdiction, he has stepped in to help the club, which is experiencing financial woes due to a cut in funding, the Sikeston Standard Democrat reported in its weekend edition.

"I'm looking for a solution to solve this problem," said Graviett. The solution he has proposed is to merge with the Scott County Rural Fire Protection District.

The Scott County fire district covers about 125 square miles, including the area surrounding Vanduser. Graviett said that a merge with the Village of Vanduser and the District will require a petition, but will ensure quality fire protection, financial solvency and that Vanduser's firefighters can join the county district's volunteers.

Joel Evans, emergency management director in Scott County, has been working with Graviett and the town's Board of Alderman to come up with a solution. He said the advantages of mergers have been discussed in the past, but were moved to the forefront when the Fire Club lost a big chunk of its funding earlier this year.

That was a result of the Scott County Rural Fire Protection District ending its contract with Vanduser -- as well as some other departments -- to help provide services.

"Earlier this year, the board of that district decided that they had enough personnel and equipment to cover the entire 125 square miles in its district itself," said Evans

That equated to a $4,000 loss to the district, which is probably about half of its revenue. "That $4,000 killed them," said Graviett.

Additionally, since Vanduser has a Fire Club and is not directly tied to the city, dues of $35 per home are collected annually. But with no way to enforce the payments, several households stopped making them.

Although the Fire Club is a separate entity from the Village of Vanduser, the city has added the building and workers compensation insurance to its policy, as the rate was less expensive, said Graviett.

"Up to this year, the Fire Club has survived," said Graviett. "However, they have had a big loss in funding this year and so far, have not paid back the town this year."

At Thursday night's Board of Alderman meeting, the possibility of a merger was discussed. Alderman Michael Hargrove, also assistant chief of the Fire Club, was there to represent the Club's interest.

"At first I was kind of apprehensive about (the merger) and concerned about the District coming over and maybe moving our trucks to another station or taking them out of our town," he said.

However, the District has said it plans to lease Vanduser's building, two trucks, tanker and other equipment. "And they may bring more equipment here," said Hargrove.

But after hearing about the plans, Hargrove said he now believes a merge would be a win-win, and said plans are in the works for the Fire Club to either turn its assets over to Vanduser or join with it in a venture to merge with the District within 30 days. Once that happens, lawyers on each side will iron out the details, but the voters will have the final seal of approval once a petition is introduced and a hearing conducted.

Evans said that preliminary research of Missouri statutes indicate the merger could be completed through a petition of 25 percent of Vanduser voters who voted in the previous gubernatorial election, followed by a public hearing.

If passed, instead of paying a membership fee, residents would pay a tax for fire protection.

Others involved in the process echoed Hargrove's comment that a merger would be a "win-win."

Another big advantage of merging departments is that there will be an increase in resources -- including personnel.

"There will be more people available to fight fires during the daytime," said Hargrove. "We have plenty of staffing during the nighttime, but not during the day -- usually there is just one person available."

Another advantage, said Evans, is that the merger would have a "real potential" to lower Vanduser's ISO rating, which determines homeowner's insurance costs. "Right now they are a nine," he said, with 10 being the highest rating.

"A merger would also open up the possibility of some additional grant funding leverage due to the increase in district population," he said. "And it would eliminate some administrative costs."

Mike Riley, a member of the District board, noted that the fire district would pay for volunteer firefighters to take training and become better at what they do. Additionally, while firefighters are not currently paid when they respond to a call, they will be if the merge is approved -- as well as for attendance at training sessions, said Riley.

"This would really help us to get more volunteers," he said.

As the Vanduser station will be maintained with its equipment, it would also benefit those just outside of Vanduser, who currently have to wait for firefighters from Scott County Rural's stations at Morley or Blodgett to respond to calls, Graviett added.

Riley said he and other District board members are hopeful for a merger.

"We think is is what's going to be best for the Scott County Rural Fire District," he said.

Graviett agreed, and said residents seem to be on board once they learned all the details.

"I have not talked to anyone who has been against it," said Graviett.

Map of pertinent addresses

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