Ponca City officials display opposition to proposed county-wide fire sales tax

July 19, 2022 | Featured|Headlines

By SHARON ROWEN | © www.kaynewscow.com

PONCA CITY — Kildare Volunteer Fire Department chief, Travis Harris, attended this week’s Ponca City Commissioner work session to hear city officials discuss a proposed six-year county-wide 1/3 cent sales tax that would benefit fire departments and ambulance services across Kay County.

Rural fire departments have worked for years to get the proposed tax on a ballot with no success. Harris said they are trying again this year.

“Blackwell, Newkirk and Kildare have passed resolutions supporting the measure,” said Harris. 

“But what I heard Monday indicates that Ponca City is not in favor of it and are seeking ways to block it. I’m baffled that they think we do not need money. They indicated that they do not want to be part of this and that they don’t want the county fire departments to have it.” 

Craig Stephenson, city manager of Ponca City, said there are philosophical differences.

“We believe that ambulances services are the greater need based on the run data,” said Stephenson. “The data shows that Newkirk is running 75 percent EMS calls and that Blackwell and Tonkawa are running 80 percent medical calls while Ponca City is running 87 percent EMS calls.”

Newkirk fire chief Adam Longcrier said that if a fire department has an ambulance service they will have more medical runs than fire runs.

“Here in Newkirk we run more ambulance calls than fire calls as does New York,” said Longcrier. “That is the way it is. Newkirk has the biggest ambulance district in Kay County. We are pushing almost 400 miles with three ambulances so this tax would help us provide those services.”

Longcrier said he believes the fire side deserves just as much attention as the EMS side. 

“My budget is not much more than Kildare’s,” he said. “I have a $27,000 budget for fire and a $31,000 budget for EMS. That has to last the entire year and cover everything. My ambulances never stop. We have an EMS service that occasionally puts out a fire. Budgets stay the same but ambulance and fire runs increase.”

Harris said Ponca City officials concluded that the tax could raise $108,000 in funding for the departments.

“They asked what a fire department would do with an estimated $108,000,” said Harris.

“Well we would replace aging equipment and send our firefighters to training. We currently do not get tax money. We operate on $4,500 operational grant received from the state once a year. Any fire department who has a population of $10,000 or less gets one. We also operate on dues paid by residents and money from fundraisers and grants. Harris said the annual fish fry brings in between a $1,000 and $1,500 a year.

“We barely bring in $20,000 a year. Some departments run on $8,000. That money has to pay for fuel, utilities, insurance, and then there is very little left for training and capitol improvements.”

Harris said last year the department spent $897 on fuel. “This year through June we have spent $1,775.13 on fuel.”

Other costs the department deals with includes, firefighter gear that Harris said cost $3,000 per set and an aging fleet of firetrucks.

“Our oldest fire truck is 45 years old and the newest one is a 2006,” said Harris. “The National Fire Protection Association says the trucks should be replaced every 20 years.”

Funding would also be used for office equipment and new turnouts. “Our newest turnouts are 12-years-old,” said Harris. “They are supposed to be replaced every 10 years.”

A 1977 fire truck is the oldest in the Kildare fleet.

Longcrier said his oldest fire truck doesn’t belong to the City of Newkirk but instead to the Forestry Service and that it is a 1986 model while the newest is a 1996.

“I think the tax is important because it would help us upgrade the things that need it.”

Stephenson said the $108,000 figure was based on calculations made by the City’s finance director.

“He took data from the month of May and based on those figures we believe the sales tax would generate$1.8 million annually,” said Stephenson. That would be divided between the 13 fire departments and four EMS services. Each unit would receive $108,700 annually. Departments with EMS service would get $216,000 based on the current run data.”

Harris said that city officials suggested that fire departments talk to legislators and apply for more grants instead of seeking a sales tax. “We do apply for grants but there are not as many out there,” said Harris.

He said he is currently trying to find a grant to pay for $27,000 worth of new radios.

“I have perfectly good radios but everyone is going digital. Communications should be the simplest thing out there but even with the new radios, we still will not be able to communicate with Ponca City fire because they are the only fire department in the state to switch to UHF digital while everyone else is on VHF digital or VHF analog.” Harris said the communication gap with Ponca City on the radio is dangerous.

Jennifer Firgard, Northern Oklahoma Development Authority, Community Development Specialist (CDBG & REAP), said that Kay County is the only county in NODA’s eight county region that does not have a sales tax for rural fire departments.

“Noble, Grant, Garfield, Alfalfa, Blaine, Kingfisher, and Major counties all have passed a tax,” she said.

Firgard said last year NODA had a $1.4 million in the grant cycle to distribute and that they received 29 applications.

“We were able to fund 21 of the 29 applicants with the $1.4 million. This year that amount is supposed to double to $2.8 million.”

She said if the grant money does double it is still not a guarantee that fire departments will receive more funding.

“That money would be available to all of the departments in the eight counties who submit  applications. We work on a score sheet and a point system. We have no cap but we ask them to be respectful and local contributions allows for less REAP money to be used.”

Longcrier said his department pursues grants but that they are not a guarantee.

“Yes grants are out there and we pursue them as much as we can, but you don’t always get them. You are fighting nearly every fire department in the area or the state for a grant and you are hoping that you showed a need.” 

Harris said the fire department did not receive any COVID funds.

“No one ever explained it to us. I tried to find out.”

He said that former Kay County Commissioner Jack Godberson tried to get some funding for the department. “We never saw anything but at least he tried to get us funding.”

Longcrier stressed the importance of rural fire departments.

“Newkirk has the most volunteer fire departments located around its city. They come running to structure fires and downtown fires. Kildare is automatically dispatched to help us at a structure fire with River Road second. When there is a grass fire. All of the rural fire departments around Newkirk are helping each other. Fire department funding is a great need. It would be really hard to do what we do with out these departments. If Kildare got new trucks. That would be a benefit to Newkirk residents as well.”

Resolutions from the cities are not needed to get the tax on the ballot.  Only approval from Kay County Commissioners is needed.

Harris said that the cities who do pass a resolution in favor of the sales tax would receive funding while those who do not, would not receive funding.

Stephenson said that is being researched by the City’s legal staff.

Stephenson confirmed that commissioners did not show support for the proposed sales tax at the work session and said that the budget for the Ponca City Fire Department is $8.1 million and that they serve 28,000 people. The topic will be revisited at an upcoming city commission meeting.

Harris said he hopes to get the measure on the November ballot.

“If we get on the ballot and it doesn’t pass we will be disappointed but we will try again. If it does pass we would have to prove ourselves to the public in that we are managing this money appropriately. As a taxpayer myself, I want to know money is managed appropriately.”

If the measure is voted on and passed, The Kay County Public Safety Association and another board would oversee the funding.