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Rules for Missouri Fire Protection Districts
I. Background and Formation
Parenthetical numbers in the text refer to sections of the current Revised Statutes of Missouri, abbreviated as RSMo.
Formation of districts
A general law dating back to the mid-1900s authorized the formation of fire protection districts in Missouri. The purpose of fire protection districts is to “supply protection by any available means to persons and property against injuries and damage from fire and from hazards which do or may cause fire” (321.010). Districts have been further empowered “to render first aid for the purpose of saving lives, and to give assistance in the event of an accident or emergency of any kind” (321.010).
A district must be entirely joined or contiguous, not having any properties within its bounds that are not served. A district may include all or part of a county or counties, and it can include incorporated cities within its boundaries. Districts may also be formed to cover just the boundaries of a single city or village (321.010).
The law permitting formation of districts resulted from citizens feeling they needed a higher level of protection than volunteer fire associations were able to provide. Nearly every fire protection district in Missouri began as a volunteer association before it became a political subdivision of the state. Because volunteer associations and political subdivisions operate under different rules, FPDs often face unique organizational problems. Changing from a volunteer association to an FPD requires changes in the mode of operation.
Volunteer associations usually make their own rules. State law gives them permission to fight fires of nonmembers, bill nonmembers for services and sue for nonpayment. It also makes the volunteers public safety officers of the state when they fight fires. Beyond that, voluntary associations set their own rules. Meetings may be open or closed, purchases follow whatever rules the association has established, and legal requirements generally do not apply.
A fire protection district, unlike a voluntary association, must comply with all the generic state statutes that apply to political subdivisions. An FPD is mandatory instead of voluntary; every person within its boundaries becomes a member. Also, FPDs may do only what the Missouri Revised Statutes specifically permit and may not do things the statutes forbid.
A fire protection district in Missouri is established by a petition signed by 100 or more registered voters within the proposed district boundaries. The petition, which must be filed with the circuit clerk, has six parts:
- A name that ends with the words “fire protection district”;
- An estimate of the district’s population, assessed valuation and taxable intangibles;
- An estimate of the costs to form the district;
- A general description of the boundaries indicated on a plat map (so that an owner can determine with certainty whether a property is in or out);
- Other information that will help a judge decide whether forming the district is necessary; and
- A prayer for organization, which is a legal term for the petition wording, “We, the undersigned, hereby pray the court grant our request for the formation of a district” (321.040).
If the proposed boundaries cross county lines, the petition must be filed in the county having the largest percentage of assessed valuation and a copy should be filed in the other county or counties as well. Because every question put before the district’s voters will have to appear on both the majority and minority county ballots, it is good to establish positive relations with all counties involved at an early stage. Court costs of $100 must accompany the petition when it is filed (321.060).
After the filing, the court may make corrections it deems necessary to the petitions, such as correcting errors in land descriptions and ensuring that descriptions used are in line with the legal descriptions. In doing this, however, the court may not take in additional territory without giving notice to residents (321.050). Then the court sets a date for a hearing, not less than 30 or more than 60 days after the petition was filed. The court orders legal notice of the hearing to be published, and the circuit clerk sends a copy by registered mail to each city and county within the boundaries (321.070). The judge before whom the petition is filed will not be automatically disqualified for being a property owner within the proposed district (321.080).
Between the date of filing and the date set for the hearing, protest petitions may be filed. A petition must come from one or more landowners and must state why incorporating the district is not desirable or claim that facts set out in the original petition are misstated. The court considers each petition that is filed before the hearing date (321.090).
At the hearing, the court finds that the facts of the petition either justify or do not justify incorporation of the fire protection district. If incorporation is justified, the court orders the district incorporated, subject to the consent of the voters (321.100). If incorporation is not justified, the court orders the matter dismissed and allocates costs among those who signed the original petition proposing the district (321.110).
Even when a court orders a district incorporated, the order does not become final until district voters consent to it in an election. This first district election is especially important, with four separate issues to be decided:
- Shall the district be incorporated?
- Who shall be the directors?
- Shall directors number three or five?
- Shall the district have authority to levy a tax of __ cents per $100 of assessed value?
The last question is crucial. Should voters say, “Yes, incorporate,” but “No, don’t tax,” matters could be worse than if firefighting had remained a volunteer operation. Firefighting would still be without funding, but now, as a political subdivision, firefighters would no longer operate under their own rules. One ingenious election authority solved this dilemma by stating the incorporation and taxing questions together before a single pair of “Yes” and “No” boxes, so that voters’ consent to incorporate was also consent to being taxed. One district tried to argue that the consent to incorporate implied permission to tax, but the courts did not agree.
Once the election authority certifies the results, the court issues its order to officially incorporate the district, and the FPD is in business. The board elected at the same time becomes empowered to act. Within 30 days, copies of all court orders, findings and decrees incorporating the district must be filed with the recorder of deeds and the county clerk in each county in which the district has territory. The fee for recording these forms is $1.
FPD board members serve six-year terms, with elections every two years. However, to stagger terms so that all board members will not be up for election simultaneously, special rules apply to the first board (321.120).
For the first board, if the three-member option is taken, the member who receives the highest number of votes serves six years, the second highest serves four years, and the third highest serves two years. If the five-member option is taken, the member who receives the highest number of votes serves six years, the second and third highest serve four years, and the fourth and fifth serve two years. Elections are held every two years. After the first set of terms is completed, board members serve six-year terms.
Fire protection districts are a political subdivision in which certain persons are prohibited from holding office. For information on these exceptions, see Chapter III. Officials and Board Operations and Chapter XVIII. Elections.
For a more detailed explanation of the process of forming a fire district, go to the Missouri Association of Fire Protection Districts website.
DM4002, new June 2011
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