Fire, Ambulance Utility District Idea Stalls

By Bill Dries

The idea of a utility district for fire and ambulance services in unincorporated Shelby County and several of the suburban towns and cities was voted down Monday, Aug. 19, by the Shelby County Commission.

But it probably will be back with attempts to bridge issues of local control as the county administration looks for solutions to a shrinking pool of fire fees.

County Commissioner Wyatt Bunker sponsored the resolution asking the Tennessee legislature to consider giving the county the option to form a utility district.

(Daily News File/Lance Murphey)

All seven Democratic commissioners abstained Monday in the party line vote on the resolution asking the Tennessee legislature to consider giving the county the option to form such a services district. That left the six Republican commissioners one vote short of the seven votes needed for passage and a formal lobbying effort for a bill in Nashville next year.

Commissioner Wyatt Bunker, sponsor of the resolution, said the idea not only faced hesitancy from Democratic commissioners representing Memphis districts, it also faced a lot of questions from suburban leaders.

“Their issue is local control all together. If they do something like this, they aren’t opposed to efficiencies and better ways to provide fire services,” Bunker said after the vote. “Most of them are concerned with who is going to have control at the end of the day. Are they going to have to go to the county to get approval for setting the fire fee? How many appointees are going to be from the municipal mayors versus the county mayor? If those are adjusted in such a way to slant the power towards the county, then you are just not going to get buy-in from them. If you don’t get buy-in from them, what’s the point?”

Before the resolution was voted down, Bunker amended it to include a 10-member utility board, with the mayor of each participating municipality and the Shelby County mayor each getting two appointees to the board. The original version had a seven-member board, with each participating mayor getting one appointee and the county mayor getting two appointees.

Some Democratic commissioners said they abstained because they had too many questions about it, not because they necessarily oppose it at this juncture.

“Some of us just simply don’t understand what you are trying to accomplish,” Commissioner Sidney Chism said to Bunker.

Bunker said if he returns with the resolution, it likely will have some major changes. He also said the suburban towns and cities could go it alone, although he has some concerns about a patchwork of “gerrymandered boundaries that have affected response times.”

“There’s a very high likelihood that from this point it will just be the municipalities involved and not the county at all. We’re just going to have to learn here at the county to make some concessions on behalf of the suburbs,” Bunker said. “I’m not going to beat around the bush and run around in circles to get it done here. We can do what we want to do in the suburbs without the county and just let the county deal with whatever the result is. I hate that, because the intent of this is to create some stability for the employees in the county.”

Although the city of Memphis could join such a utility board, Bunker and other commissioners think that is unlikely, as is Bartlett, Germantown and Collierville joining, because they also have their own fire departments. Millington and Arlington do too, but there are complications that might make a utility district attractive to them.

“Millington, Lakeland and Arlington are all dispatched by Shelby County Fire,” said county Public Works Director Tom Needham.

Lakeland is the only one of the seven towns and cities in Shelby County without a fire department. Bunker is running for mayor of Lakeland in the September elections.

The city of Millington provides fire services to some of unincorporated Shelby County near its borders under a contract agreement.

For county government, the issue is a shrinking pool of fire fees going back to the city of Memphis’ annexation of Cordova.

“We lost fire fees associated with that annexation,” Needham said, adding that county government would lose more fire fees with the coming annexation of the Bridgewater and Southwind areas.