A proposed plan to merge Jefferson County’s 17 suburban fire districts with Louisville Fire & Rescue has ignited a heated fight between one council member and the suburban fire chiefs.
But, despite the heated back and forth, , the future of the financially strapped suburban fire districts remains an issue for Louisville.
Councilman Dan Johnson, a Democrat, recently proposed a plan to merge the districts. In a recent interview with WDRB, Johnson recently said the merger was necessary “because the city doesn’t go and watch houses burn to the ground.”
The claims were disputed during the Metro Council meeting on Thursday night by Kevin Tyler, president of the Jefferson County Fire Association and the Harrods Creek Fire chief.
“Anyone who understands the strategies and tactics of the modern fire service would never comment about what they might have witnessed or heard about fire ground operations, yet alone accuse fire fighters of standing around watching someone’s home burn to the ground,” Tyler told council members.
Dozens of fire chiefs and firefighters attended the meeting in solidarity. James Peden, a council member and longtime Highview firefighter, scolded Johnson.
“I would like to have a meeting that will involve councilman Johnson and the fire service in the same room where he can publicly apologize for his snide comments he made on the news a couple nights ago,” said Peden, a Republican.
On Thursday night, Johnson’s stance remained the same—he stood by his claim that there is a problem with the service the suburban fire chiefs provide.
Johnson said uniformity in the quality of fire departments is the crux of his proposal. He said wants “citizens to be treated the same everywhere.”
“I think we are going away from being a combined city to a very split city with lines everywhere, and I think we need to get rid of those lines when it comes to safety and things like fire,” he said before the council meeting on Thursday.
Johnson said he believes the suburban fire districts’ service leads to higher home insurance rates. But Tyler said the best way to address that issue is not by merging the districts.
He said raising an antiquated tax cap would be a better plan.
Tyler said an ongoing shift from volunteer fire departments to professional departments in the suburbs has created revenue issues.
“Personnel in any organization whether its public or private, the most cost that you incur is people,” he said. “It’s the people that do the job. It’s the benefit for the job. So, as we had to transition and put more career people on, we needed more revenue, but we are capped out.”
Suburban fire districts are special tax districts. Unlike the city fire department–which is funded by the city’s general revenue fund– suburban districts get a cut from local property taxes. Right now, it’s 10 cents per 100 dollars. That tax rate, though, hasn’t changed in decades.
Tyler said he will need the support of the council to tackle that issue. That’s why he said he’s disappointed Johnson hasn’t reached out to him or the other fire chiefs for information or opinions on possible effects of his plan.
In the meantime, Tyler said he’s not too worried about the merger idea. He said the proposal likely won’t go far.
“I don’t think there is a lot of support among our representatives in Jefferson County to take this on,” he said. “I am more interested in getting them to lift this tax cap.”
Tyler said he expects resistance among homeowners, but he’s confident something can be worked out.
The Metro Council is expected to start discussion on this issue during Wednesday’s meeting.