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Beaver Lake Volunteer Fire Department Seeks Dues increase

Prairie Creek, AR -- Officials with the Beaver Lake Volunteer Fire Department have begun the process of setting a special election on a plan to increase the annual dues so the department can increase its level of service.

An ordinance calling for a July 12 special election has gone to the Benton County Quorum Court for the required three readings. The ordinance, which would call for a vote on increasing the annual dues from $75 to $200, will be up for its second reading when the Quorum Court meets at 6 p.m. Thursday.

The annual dues are levied on each residence and each business with a structure in the department's service district that can be occupied. The dues are listed on the annual property tax statements and collected by the Benton County collector's office.

According to Fire Chief John Whisenant, the department needs to increase revenue to provide service to a growing area. The department last increased its annual dues about a decade ago, he said.

"That increase was supposed to last us five years," he said. "We've gone nine years."

Whisenant said the department covers about 7,500 residents in an area of about 30 square miles east of Rogers. He said that at the same time the population has been growing, the department's active membership has been declining.

"We've had about a 65 percent reduction in active volunteers," he said. "But our calls are up by more than 40 percent. That is a problem that other departments are seeing. It's a regional and a state and nationwide problem. Nationally, volunteer fire departments are down by about 11 percent."

The department wants to upgrade its service by hiring a core of three full-time firefighter/emergency medical technicians, according to Whisenant and Dr. John Redwine with the department's board of directors. The department would also need to modernize its facilities to house full-time personnel on a 24-hour basis.

Redwine said hiring the firefighter/emergency medical technicians reflects the changing nature of the department's role.

"Three out of every four calls are medical," he said. "We average more than one a day, and it has been up to nine."

Redwine and Whisenant said the full-time personnel will provide both medical and fire coverage. Whisenant said the average response time for the department's coverage area is just more than five minutes, which Redwine said is the most critical period for many medical emergencies.

"If your heart stops, in four minutes your brain stops," Redwine said. "The critical time is that first four minutes."

Whisenant and Redwine said the upgrade made possible by the dues increase may have other benefits that will lessen the cost to homeowners and businesses. If the department improves its status as ranked by the Insurance Services Office, insurance rates for residents could drop.

"If the ISO ratings drop a couple of points, the majority of people in the district could save more than this," Whisenant said of the $125 yearly increase in dues.

Several other departments have their dues collected by the county. According to County Clerk Tena O'Brien, the most recent vote on a dues increase was sought by the Northeast Benton County Fire Department for its emergency medical services district. The department asked for an increase in the emergency medical services dues from $40 to $100 per household. That increase was approved in a July 9, 2013, special election in a vote of 298-294.

Rob Taylor, Northeast Benton County fire chief, said the department had to work hard to get the increase approved. Taylor said the key is being able to show people the need and the benefit to them. He said a public education campaign is essential.

"The most important thing is giving people time to think about it and showing them how it's going to benefit them," he said. "Some people are going to get a little balky about it, saying, 'What are you trying to get past me?' You've got to know why you need the extra money and be able to show the people why that's important."

Metro on 03/14/2016