To be or not to be, that is the question in Atoka as officials study the feasibility of creating its own fire department.
Tuesday night, Town Administrator Brian Koral presented to the mayor and aldermen the findings of the feasibility study. Basically, the town can only afford it if taxes are increased.
Let’s hit the high notes first, then we’ll talk taxes.
Why does Atoka want to create its own fire department?
Town officials and residents have been very vocal in expressing their dissatisfaction with the combined Munford/Atoka department due to the understaffing. The Tennessee Municipal Technical Advisory Service (MTAS) benchmark is 2.11 firefighters per 1,000 residents; combined, there is only half a firefighter per 1,000 residents in Munford and Atoka.
Atoka contracts services from Munford, and pays well over $300,000 annually for fire protection, but budget constraints have left officials in Munford unable to hire an adequate number of firefighters.
How much is this going to cost?
Startup costs for a fire department are estimated at $820,000-870,000, depending on the number of firefighters hired, and annual operating costs are estimated to be $798,000-935,000.
Atoka currently contributes $375,000 to Munford’s fire budget and, obviously, those funds wouldn’t be enough to cover costs. The town is looking at a deficit of $423,000-601,000.
And this leads to the next question: How in the world are they going to pay operating costs?
Enter the tax increase.
Koral ran the numbers and it is very evident Atoka cannot support a 14- or 18-member department without additional revenue. Additional revenue could mean using the general fund reserves, taking budget funds from other departments – which is silly and ridiculous – or it means raising taxes.
There’s enough in the reserves to keep the department afloat for eight years or so, under the best circumstances, but it will eventually deplete money the city has set aside and then what?
Taking money from other departments – retiring the K-9 unit, for example – wouldn’t be a good move, either.
The only option here is raising taxes. I think it’s fair. At 55 cents per $100 of valuation, Atoka currently has the second-lowest tax rate of incorporated towns and cities in the area (not just Tipton County, but all over). Increasing the tax rate to 81 cents will provide $425,000 in additional revenue, which will support a 14-member department; an increase to 92 cents will provide $602,000 in revenue, enough to support an 18-member department.
(There are other tax options which are, quite honestly, overwhelming to even think about. You can view the town's presentation here.)
And even with an increase, Atoka would still have one of the lowest tax rates of incorporated cities in Shelby and Tipton counties.
To me it makes sense: raise taxes, start a fire department, increase the ISO rating and fire protection.
Over the next few months, Atoka will have plenty of decisions to make, but this should be a no-brainer.