Lakeland ignites plan to launch fire department

bigger-lakeland-logoAfter about two years of study and discussion, Lakeland took a big step last week toward setting up the city’s own fire department. Lakeland currently pays the Shelby County Fire Department for fire service, and the mayor and commissioners believe the move will save money in the long run.

At the June 8 city board meeting, they authorized City Manager Jim Atkinson to hire a consultant to proceed with developing and creating the fire department. The vote was unanimous.

At the meeting, Lakeland citizen Richard Gonzales asked about costs before the board voted. He wondered if there are estimates for what the fire department will cost Lakeland in the future. Mayor Wyatt Bunker cited a study by the Municipal Technical Advisory Service (MTAS) that gave informed estimates on what the fire department would cost to start and to maintain, and he explained why the board thinks this is a smart economic choice.

“I think we can provide enhanced service for our citizens by bringing it in house,” he said, citing successful fire departments in surrounding municipalities. The city also should save money.

Currently, Lakeland residents pay a fire fee totaling about $2.4 million annually, he said. “Coming out of the gate, we feel like we can reduce that fee substantially.”

MTAS has estimated that a Lakeland fire department would cost about $1.6 million in the city’s annual operating budget (not including capital).

“We might see increases over time,” Bunker said. “But what we are paying now is so much more than what our costs are – what our annual operating costs are estimated to be – we don’t believe that anytime soon we’d be seeing an increase that would exceed that amount we’re paying.”

He also said the current fire fee is high enough to help Shelby County pay for services outside of Lakeland. A former Shelby County Commissioner himself, Bunker recalled chairing the county’s Public Works Committee and talking with the public works director about this in the mid- to late-2000s. The phrase used to describe Lakeland in that conversation was “a cash cow.” The extra money helped to subsidize fire coverage in the county between Shelby Forest and Frayser, he said.

Lakeland’s long-term plans are for the property tax ultimately to fund the new fire department without a property tax increase. The existing fire fee would be phased out as the city grows residentially and economically. The board expects the consultant to create the fire department, transition to it and phase out that fee.

Bunker said he expects the in-house fire department to improve the city’s fire rating and reduce insurance costs for Lakeland residents.

Another option that can help fire service would be to let the Shelby County Fire Department continue to operate the Lakeland-owned fire station on Canada Road by the interstate in exchange for an “automatic aid” agreement (not a mutual aid agreement) he explained.

“I think this is the right move for our city,” Bunker said.