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Early votes light in fire district election

One percent of the more than 5,900 voters eligible to cast ballots in Tuesday's special election for the formation of the Lake Hamilton Fire District cast ballots during the first four days of early voting, the Garland County Election Commission said.

Fifty-nine votes had been cast as of Friday afternoon, Election Commission Chairman Gene Haley said. Early voting continues today at the election commission building, 649A Ouachita Ave., from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Election day voting will be Tuesday from 7:30 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. at the Lake Hamilton Volunteer Fire Department headquarters at 1111 Highway 290.

"That's to be expected," Haley said of the turnout. "This is down in the south part of the county, so most people are probably waiting until Tuesday instead of coming all the way up here to vote."

He said most of the early votes were cast Friday in response to a mailer the department sent out encouraging voters to approve the ballot question. Voting "yes" allows the department to have its dues levied by the Garland County Quorum Court on real property tax bills similar to how real estate taxes are levied for school districts and municipalities every November.

Placing the dues on tax bills won't allow the state to expropriate property for delinquent fire district dues. Title to tax delinquent real property vests with the state land commissioner's office if the taxes are two years past due, but, according to the state's improvement district statute, an improvement or protection district levy that's delinquent can't be transferred to the land commissioner's office.

The formation of a fire district would instead enable the department to sue for collection of delinquent dues. The state's public health and welfare code requires insurance companies to reimburse volunteer fire departments for calls for service to properties owned by non dues-paying members in the department's service territory, but the department said securing payment isn't a given.

"That's a crap shoot at best," said Don Davis, president of the department's board of directors. "That puts us in the position to file suit and litigate against the homeowner's insurance company, which may or may not pay. But we'll respond to any fire, regardless if the property owner hasn't paid their dues."

The department has said the more secure revenue stream a fire district affords is needed to offset the loss of membership caused by Hot Springs' annexation of a large part of the department's membership base, which would be further eroded by the pending annexation of another piece of the department's 44-square-mile service area.

Local on 02/12/2018

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