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  • Writer's pictureMicah Messer

Firestorm Over Fire Protection

Updated: Oct 21, 2022

The content within this article is by a guest contributor and has no editorial affiliation with the Lee County Bulletin. His opinions are his own.

Many residents have expressed their dismay at receiving a bill for the new Smiths Station Fire Protection District in their mailboxes last week. It wasn't long before the district's citizens took to social media to express their discontent with the bill and the lack of knowledge about the change.

As one district citizen, Earl King, said in an interview with the Lee County Bulletin, "I am fine with a raise in the fire department budget, just not like this." Many others expressed the same sentiment on social media, saying they had no issue with the Smiths Station Fire and Rescue, but they did have a problem with how the district was created, with little to no public involvement.

As the voices grew louder and louder on social media, the Smiths Station Fire and Rescue began responding to the outrage and, to some, improperly. "Their attitude really turned me off." Said Earl King. In one post, my very own, where I expressed I had not received a notification of the fire fee change, they stated, "It was posted to all the Facebook groups. It was on our website. Short of carrier pigeons, not really sure how else to notify folks." But, as Earl King stated in an interview with the Lee County Bulletin, "They are able to send us all a bill, but not a notification?" The frustration grew on the What's Happening in Smiths Station Facebook group to the point the administrator of the page began disabling comments and tossing people out of the group. Some of these members have been allowed to return after talking with the administrator.

It should be noted no post was made on Facebook or other social media sites from the Smiths Station Fire and Rescue before the Fire Protection District Plan was brought before the two governing bodies. The Smiths Station Fire and Rescue website does claim it had 15,000 tri-fold brochures made and sent via USPS to the residents of the district about the new fire fee after the fire protection district was created. The only two notifications from the Smiths Station Fire and Rescue Facebook page that could be found at the time of this article were posted on September 1, 2022, for the Town Hall on September 9, 2022. And, on August 21, a post linked to their FAQ about the upcoming changes to how the fire fee will be collected. The Smiths Station Fire and Rescue Facebook Page did put out reminders on September 8 in many Facebook groups from around the area about the Town Hall on September 9, 2022.

Again, no notification was sent about the planned changes for how the fire service would be provided or funded by the Smiths Station Fire and Rescue before it was brought before the governing councils of Lee County and Smiths Station. WRBL, WSFA, WTVM, Opelika-Auburn News, and the Opelika Observer all published articles about the suspension of the ambulance service while only mentioning that the Smiths Station Fire and Rescue was working on a plan to submit for additional funding to the Lee County Commission.

However it happened, many in the district were not notified or were not aware of the district proposal until after it was created and they received their first bill. Like many, I did not receive a notification in the mail and we meticulously go through our mail. How did this fire protection district come to be, and why did the Lee County Commission and the City Council of Smiths Station approve it?

In Alabama Code 11-89-3 it states, "…[the entity] shall first file an identical written application with the governing body of each county and municipality located in whole or in part within the boundaries of the area or areas to be served by the proposed district…" and on February 22, 2022, the Smiths Station Fire and Rescue did just that with the City of Smiths Station. The City Council and Mayor voted in favor of the motion, with Councilman Cooley stating he favored the resolution so the ambulance service would be resumed. When asked why he was in favor of the protection district, Mayor Copeland said, "I have seen the suffering of the time it takes for the response [of the ambulance and the fire services]."

On February 28, 2022, Daniel Sexton (Deputy Chief) gave the exact same resolution to the Lee County Commission to which all members, except for Gary Long of District 3, approved the motion. Mr. Long abstained from the vote because he was a previous volunteer member of the Smiths Station Fire and Rescue. On March 9, 2022, the Smiths Station Fire Protection District was established with the State of Alabama, with both Smiths Station and Lee County having approved the five board members.

The board has the authority to establish a reasonable fee for the citizens of the district and enact that fee with the same authority as other districts, such as water and garbage. If you fail to pay the fee, you may be subject to a claim that could impact your credit score, and a lien on your property or taxes. You may also be liable through civil litigation.

The adoption of the fire protection district occurred just a month after the Smiths Station Fire and Rescue ambulance service was suspended due to a lack of employees and the ability to fund the service. In 2021, the ambulance service lost $73,208.00 while paying their employees considerably less for their EMTs, $6 an hour less! Interestingly, the ambulance service billed individuals over $819,000 while only collecting an abysmal $260,055.46. Back in 2019, the Smiths Station Fire and Rescue went before the Lee County Commission and stated the ambulance service was working "...1000% better" yet just two years later, the service was suspended.

Some readers may not recall, but back in 2011, when the Smiths Station Fire and Rescue were known as Friendship Fire Department, the Deputy Chief was charged with embezzlement. Almost everyone that was spoken to during our interviews expressed some level of concern that such a thing did not happen again. The question remains of how the Smiths Station Fire Protection District will be audited and who would call for the audit.

Chief Blake Simpkins of the Beulah Utilities District Fire and Rescue stated, "We talk about our financials every month; we go through the list to see what's coming and what's going out." Chief Simpkins continued by saying, "We actually pay a CPA…we pay them a lot of money to audit us every year." Chief Simpkins advised that the members of the Smiths Station Fire Protection District Board reach out to them to discuss how to conduct the board meetings to keep everything "…above board." But how much money will be on the table?

Each year, the Smiths Station Fire and Rescue receives a set amount of money from the county for the Property Taxes of each building and lot. This fee, $50.00, is a set amount that will remain unchanged unless voted on by the people of Lee County to increase. According to documents obtained by the Lee County Bulletin, the Smiths Station Fire and Rescue receives, on average, around $560,000 each year. The new fee will generate a considerable amount more, potentially over 2.5 million dollars each year. How does the Smiths Station Fire Protection District plan to use this three-fold increase in cash flow?

According to the PowerPoint used during the town hall on September 9, 2022, the board plans to re-establish the ambulance service and hire nine full-time firefighters. Just the salaries and benefits for the firefighters and EMTs, who would work three a shift, would be $1,162,755 each year. The board also wants to replace four of its fire engines, one of which is unable to be repaired, for a total of $2,571,529. Finally, the board wants to make improvements to fire stations and replace equipment on some of its current vehicles to bring the major capital expenses to an estimated $5,266,529. Commissioner Long believes the Smiths Station Fire Protection District Board "…got to make a choice if there are going to do an ambulance and full-time or just full-time so they can have more full-time [firefighters]." Regardless of the board's decisions, the new vehicles, projects, and personnel will cost the district's citizens, but how much?

The annual fire fee is set at $191.96 for single-home residential, with commercial and non-profit fees charged at different rates. Each property will still be paying the $50.00 county fire fee; the actual fire fee will be $141.96 per year or $11.83 per month. The fire fee rate is comparable, while less, to the Beulah Utilities and Fire Protection District, which charges roughly $17 each month for residential homes. Those who may be in a hardship situation may also apply for hardship to not pay the fee.

While the need is there and the rates are not astronomical, residents inside the new Fire Protection District feel cheated and subverted yet again, much like with the garbage collection and disposal. As Earl King said, "Just because something is legal doesn't make it right." He went on further to state he would vote for an increase in funding for the fire department if it were a referendum on the ballot.

Many agree with Earl King and do not like how the Fire Protection District was formed. According to the Smiths Station Fire and Rescue website, they argue it is more open and has greater oversight from the public than a traditional fire department. As stated on in their town hall PowerPoint, "Board members [are] appointed by elected officials…board members can be impeached under Section 175 of the Alabama Constitution…as a government agency [we] must follow open meeting laws…subject to audit by the Alabama Department of Examiners of Public Accounts."

As another citizen in the District, Coriey Burkman, stated, "…according to my communications with SSF&R via messenger, the board of directors is allowed to determine what fees will be imposed regardless of what private citizens say about it." We can all agree there are concerns about the new fire protection district, and while it is in effect now, the verdict is still out on if the citizens will accept it.

Do you believe the three-fold increase in the fire fee is justified? Do you think how the fire protection district was established was the right way to go about it? Do you believe the Smiths Station Fire and Rescue adequately notified the public before making the changes? We would love to hear your thoughts in the comments below this social media post or via e-mail at

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