Bill would protect forest owners from fire district fees

Bill would protect forest owners from fire district fees

By MARY SELL, Alabama Daily News

Disputes between timberland owners and some fire districts have resulted in statewide legislation to prohibit any district from assessing fees or dues on timberland.

“We have, unfortunately, local fire districts throughout the state and some of them, we feel like, have been taking some measures, i.e., issuing some costs, on their own,” Sen. Greg Albritton, R-Atmore, said. “The (Alabama Forestry Association) and such have felt we have to do something to protect the landowners.”

Senate Bill 282 would leave fire protection on privately owned property used for timber production to the Alabama Forestry Commission, a state agency. The bill was given a favorable report on a 11-0 vote in the Senate Forestry, Conservation and Agriculture Committee earlier this month. The next stop is a vote in the Senate.

Fire district fees as high as $8 an acre per year have been reported in Jefferson County.

“I don’t want to call out folks, but it is my understanding that most of the issue has been raised in the northern part of the state,” Albritton said.

Gene Necklaus, president of the Alabama Association of Fire Chiefs, said the issue appears to be between a few holding companies and one or two fire districts.

Fire districts can cover multiple municipalities and unincorporated areas and urban and rural areas. Many were set up decades ago.

The intent to of fire districts is provide a higher level of service than may be available through traditional fire department structures, Necklaus said. They’re funded through fees on property owners within them.

Necklaus said he doesn’t know how many fire districts exist in Alabama, but the bill would have an impact beyond Jefferson County.

“A statewide law seems reactive,” Necklaus said.

Albritton said he thinks there should be more oversight and control of the fire districts and how they spend their money.

“There are a lot of questions, all I’m trying to do is establish a statute, who has the authority,” Albritton said.

Necklaus said most fire districts are set up though local legislation first approved by the Alabama Legislature.

“They all report to someone, they all have a board,” he said.

Fees can vary by district. Generally, districts don’t charge landowners with less than 100 acres, Necklaus said.

“We’re talking about large holding companies,” he said.

The Alabama Forestry Association is advocating for the bill and says some timberland owners are being charged twice for fire protection.

“The fire protection for timberland is already vested with the Alabama Forestry Commission,” AFA Executive Vice-President Chris Isaacson said. “That is one of the primary reasons that agency was formed decades ago.”

And timberland owners pay for that fire service through a tax on their products, Isaacson said.

Battling forest fires requires specialized training and equipment that fire districts don’t have.

He said the legislation wouldn’t impact local volunteer departments, but focuses on the more formal fire districts that are allowed to assess fees on property owners.

There are about 400,000 timberland owners in Alabama with property ranging from 10 acres to 100,000 acres, he said.

“There is not a real rational basis for (some of the fire districts’ fees),” Isaacson said. “…“Most landowners don’t face fires except very sporadically.”

But Gene Coleman, chief of the Center Point Fire District in Jefferson County,  said he’s waited hours for Forestry Commission employees to respond to forest fires.

Coleman’s fire district is older than the three municipalities that formed after it and that it now serves. The district shares borders with Birmingham and Trussville.

And part of the district includes “urban interface” area where growing communities meet woods.

“These houses sitting out there, they are at risk from wildfire,” he said.

There are at least 12 districts in Jefferson County, Coleman said. His district’s maximum fee is $275 annually.

“It would have an impact on our services, for sure,” Coleman said about the legislation. Fire districts already struggle to hire emergency responders and a new firetruck costs $500,000.

“That’s a cheap one,” he said.

A fiscal note on Senate Bill 282 says it will decrease funding to fire districts by an undetermined amount and increase obligations of the Alabama Forestry Commission by an undetermined amount.

Alabama Forestry Commissioner Rick Oates declined to comment on this bill.

Necklaus and Coleman said the Forestry Commission does an excellent job, but is understaffed and underfunded.

In Jackson County, where Necklaus lives, it’s usually two men and some heavy equipment responding to a forest fire.

“In a big fire, two guys ain’t gonna get it,” Necklaus said. Fire districts supply “more boots on the ground” he said.

The Forestry Commission had 222 employees in 2017, down from 333 in 2009, according to the State Personnel Department of Alabama.

The commission had total appropriations of $20.1 million this year, down from $33 million in fiscal year 2010.

Part of that funding does come from a severance tax paid by timberland owners on the sale of their product. At least 85 percent of the tax revenue must be spent by the Forestry Commission on fire suppression. In fiscal 2018, the collected tax was nearly $6 million, up from about $4.7 million 10 years ago.

Alabama has more than 23 million acres of timberland. According to the Forestry Commission, 748 fires covering 8,400 acres occurred in the past calendar year. In 2016 there was a significant drought and 3,728 fires covered 49,000 acres.

Besides fires, the districts respond to medical emergencies, including gunshot wounds and ATV wrecks.

“Removing timber lands from fire districts will leave that land and any occupants (unprotected or under-protected) in medical and rescue situations,” Necklaus said.

Information about how many fire districts exists in the state is hard to find, but the state constitution has multiple amendments allowing for the creation of the districts in many counties, including some of the largest.

“This (bill) is no reflection on the value of these fire districts,” Isaacson said. “They serve a valuable function. I’m sure home owners, business owners appreciate their role. But the fire districts are not equipped to provide fire protection to timberland owners. They’re being charged for something they’re already paying for through the Forestry Commission.”

Tom Clarke, fire chief at Carroll’s Creek Fire Protection District, founded in 1984, said it assesses fees based on the value of structures on property, but not vacant timber land.

“We respond to woods fires, but it just happens to be that no one gets charged for it because that’s how we did our fire district,” Clarke said.