By Julie Ann Madden

Posted December 15, 2017 at 12:01 am

j West Akron Fire District map 2017.tif

Editor’s Note: Due to too many events on the same evening, the editor listened to this meeting’s tape and couldn’t determine all of the speakers’ voices.

Akron firefighters and ambulance personnel will soon have a different coverage area in Union County, S.D.

Most importantly, some Union County residents will find themselves receiving fire protection and emergency medical services from different departments.

At a special meeting on Dec. 5, the West Akron Fire District Board voted to dissolve the current fire district and organize a new fire district.

The new fire district’s proposed boundaries are:

• From 309th Street on the north to S.D. Highway 50 on the south; and

• S.D. County Road 2 (477th Avenue) on the west with the Big Sioux River as the eastern boundary.

The reason for dissolving and creating a new district is solely financial but since it had to be done, the board members decided to “square up” the district’s boundaries, too.

The boundaries are subject to approval by the Alcester, Beresford and Elk Point fire departments. Each of these districts will gain some territory as well as lose some with the proposed boundary changes.

Earlier this year the West Akron Fire District Board began discussing how to pay the annual $24,000 Akron officials now charge — nearly double what the fire district paid a few years ago. The new cost for fire protection services is based on what Iowans pay in taxes, calculated at a “per square mile” rate.

It was noted that West Akron Fire District’s levy was 10.9 cents per $1,000 taxable valuation while Elk Point’s is 35 cents.

Jefferson Fire District’s levy is about 50 cents but it also includes emergency medical services, said Board Secretary Jesse McKee, and Union County’s rural-areas-without-fire-districts tax levy is 12.9 cents. If there is no fire district, fire protection is the responsibility of township boards.

McKee explained in Iowa, the levy is 41 cents per $1,000 of assessed taxable valuation, which computes to 25 cents in Union County.

One man informed the board he figured his West Akron Fire District levy cost him about 29 cents per acre and the board would have to increase that 2.5 times to approximately 65 cents per acre to meet Akron’s fee of $24,000 annually.

With South Dakota tax laws, fire districts can only increase their levies a certain amount per year, and the West Akron Fire District would never be able to levy enough to meet that $24,000. The district also does not have enough reserves to pay this for FY 2019, which is due July 1, 2018 and usually paid in October.

The board had considered a tax opt out but when it ended in three years, the board would be facing the same issue — not enough money for fire protection fees.

It was suggested they do a “per call” charge instead of an annual fee. It was noted North Sioux City, S.D., officials have contracted (ambulance) emergency medical services with Sioux City officials for $1,000 per call.

Most often we’d have money in the bank but that one off- year — if you can’t afford the calls, you go to borrow money but what happens when the bank says what’s your collateral? asked a man.

In 2016, West Akron had six fire calls, and in 2017, Akron EMS has had 10 calls to South Dakota out of their 216 dispatches to date this year.

Akron EMS doesn’t charge the fire district for providing emergency medical services but deploys along with firefighters to structure fire calls.

There was also a concern that in “any given year, whether Akron’s getting the $24,000 or not, they can say we don’t have the manpower, we don’t want to deal with (West Akron) anymore and then you’re done.”

“You’ll fall back to Alcester or Elk Point (fire departments) which haven’t been getting $24,000 annually, they’ll pick up more acres with potentially less adequate equipment,” a man said.

McKee responded he had thought of this, too. However, the West Akron Fire District’s cost is about one-fourth of the Akron Fire Department’s budget tax revenues collected in addition to Akron residential taxes.

“This is a huge chunk of the ground they cover,” said McKee, explaining Iowa or South Dakota state officials could change fire protection/emergency medical services rules, too. For example, when South Dakota state officials dissolved the Greater Hoyt and Greater Scott school districts.

“It’s a 10-year agreement — not necessarily on the money though,” said McKee.

Another concern was small town departments have issues maintaining their departments.

“I’m not opposed to raising a levy,” said one man. “I just want to know their commitment is as good as mine is in paying it every year. In five years, I’m not going to find out — for whatever reason, insurance or lack of volunteers, (they won’t provide us service). I’d like to see some long-term commitment guaranteeing us service.”

“All contracts are made to be broken, too,” said Board Member Darold Vanderham.

“All government entities are like a sponge — they want more tax dollars,” said Larry Noll who lives in the fire district.

“And they aren’t accountable,” said Board Member Kevin Lewison.

“On the flip side, if we have no organized fire district, I figure our casualty rates would go up,” said Noll.

“I don’t think we have much choice,” said Lewison.

Board President Austin Willms noted few residents had attended any of the 8 to 10 meetings the fire district board had had regarding this so it was up to the board to move forward with a decision. Besides board members present, others attending the meeting were Noll, Joe Hook and Nick McKee.

With the boundary change the board picked, it was noted the Akron Fire District will have less coverage area — about 20 less sections — so their fee will be reduced accordingly. Willms estimated it would be about $16,000 instead of $24,000 annually.

Board members who will now live outside the new boundaries will have to be replaced, said Willms, noting there will be two vacancies (Vanderham and Fickbohm).

Joe Hook volunteered to take one of the board seats.

Vanderham made the motion to dissolve the current district, restructuring the boundaries subject to approval of the affected fire departments. Board Member Terry Kjose seconded it, and the vote was unanimous, 4-0 with Board Members Vanderham, Kjose, Lewison and Dwight Fickbohm voting. Willms only votes to break tie-votes.

Vanderham then made a motion to have Lewison and Willms go meet with the three affected fire departments. Lewison seconded it, and the vote was unanimous. Hook volunteered to go with them.

Finally, the board set their next meeting for 7 p.m., Tuesday, Feb. 6, 2018 at Union Creek Lutheran Church in rural Union County. Their hope is all the changes will be completed in time for the April annual meeting.

West Akron Fire District voters may petition for a referendum for the people to vote on the board’s decision. The petition must be filed within 20 days from the fire district board’s decision.

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