JEFFERSON CITY — The fight between the Columbia Fire Department and the Boone County Fire Protection District has reached a new stage — in the Missouri House of Representatives.
On Tuesday, the two agencies battled it out in a hearing of the House Local Government Committee over an issue that began in 2015. The disagreement focuses on who oversees putting out fires on property that was covered by the Fire District and then annexed by the city of Columbia, and therefore who gets to collect property tax in those areas.
T.J. O’Brien, president of the Columbia chapter of the International Association of Fire Fighters, said the city should cover those fires.
“If it’s in the city, it’s our responsibility," O'Brien said. "(The Fire District) cannot provide the same services that we can.”
Fire District board members Bill Watkins and David Griggs, however, said it makes more sense for their agency to do it. Watkins said this is because Boone County's crews are closer.
“(City firefighters) have to respond to an issue that we’ve already taken care of because we were closer, and that’s not a really good use for city money to be sending a fire truck or a crew out when they really don’t need to,” Watkins said.
A law from 2018 sponsored by Rep. Cheri Toalson Reisch, R-Hallsville, made it so that both organizations could respond to fires and collect property tax on properties annexed by the city of Columbia since June 2018. However, the issue was complicated when the Fire District sued the Fire Department for the money it was owed for services provided before that law was passed.
Columbia refused, and the fight has persisted ever since.
Reisch attempted to fix the situation Tuesday by proposing new language to the existing bill that would relieve Columbia of an obligation to respond to fire in annexed areas. The added language stipulates that “with regard to any newly annexed territory contained within a fire district boundary, a municipality shall have no obligation to respond to calls for service within such area.”
Reisch said she hopes this change will bring both parties back to the table to work out a solution.
Lawmakers on the committee had many issues with the new language, including that it could be too harsh and that it could be opened up to apply to other municipalities, which is not something they were interested in. However, more than anything, many lawmakers didn’t understand why they were being brought into this issue.
“I don’t know why we are really involved," Rep Bill Falkner, R-St. Joseph, said. "It’s like having your best friends get divorced … and having to decide who you’re friends with."
The committee also heard testimony on another bill from Reisch that would let her hometown of Hallsville add a public safety tax to the ballot next election.
“I’m looking forward to getting this done to give them authority to put it on the ballot and let the voters decide,” she said.
The bill would let the citizens of Hallsville vote on whether to add a sales tax up to half-a-cent to help fund public safety. Rep. Rodger Reedy, R-Windsor, proposed a nearly identical bill that would put the same issue on the ballot for the cities of Lincoln and Clinton.
“It seems like we’re all saying the same thing,” Reisch said.
Rep. Joe Runions, D-Grandview, proposed to the committee members that they try to wrap all of these proposals for a public safety tax into one bill so they don’t have to go through the process for each one individually.
“It would be nice if we could look into something that would cover everyone at one time so we wouldn’t have to do this 30 times a year,” Runions said.
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