Rules for Missouri Fire Protection Districts
Parenthetical numbers in the text refer to sections of the current Revised Statutes of Missouri, abbreviated as RSMo.
Formation of FPDs
A general law dating back to the mid-1900s authorized the formation of fire protection districts (FPDs) in Missouri. The purpose of FPDs 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" (321.010.1). FPDs 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" (321.010.1).
An FPD must be entirely joined or contiguous. An FPD may include all or part of a county or counties, and it can include incorporated cities within its boundaries. FPDs may also be formed to cover the boundaries of a single city or village (321.010.1).
The law permitting formation of FPDs resulted from citizens wanting a higher level of protection than volunteer fire associations could provide. Nearly every FPD in Missouri began as a volunteer fire protection association (FPA) before it became a political subdivision of the state. Because volunteer fire protection associations and political subdivisions operate under different rules, FPDs often face unique organizational problems. Changing from a volunteer fire protection association to an FPD requires changes in the mode of governance
Volunteer associations usually make their own rules. State law gives volunteer fire protection associations permission to fight fires of nonmembers, bill nonmembers for services and sue for nonpayment (320.300-310). Beyond that, voluntary fire protection associations set their own rules following the Nonprofit Corporation Law (355). Meetings may be open or closed, purchases follow whatever rules the association has established, and many legal requirements generally do not apply.
An FPD, unlike a voluntary fire protection association, must comply with all the generic state statutes that apply to political subdivisions or municipal corporations. Also, unlike a voluntary fire protection association, membership in an FPD is mandatory instead of voluntary; every person within its boundaries becomes a tax-paying member. Also, FPDs may do only what the Missouri Revised Statutes specifically permit and may not do things the statutes forbid.
Categories and accountabilities
It is important to understand the uniqueness of FPDs and the difference between an FPD and a fire department (FD) or other governments such as a city or county. Dependent entities, such as fire departments, are accountable to a political subdivision. The rules for a dependent entity are largely determined by the political subdivision, and not statutes.
Independent or special purpose entities are political subdivisions. Statutes largely determine the rules for independent entities. Because of different governing statutes, administration of an FPD is different from a fire department, and this is why a meeting of the FPD board of directors (BOD) is sometimes run differently from a Board of Aldermen or Village Trustees
Sovereignty means the FPD has supreme, independent authority and power to rule and make law related to its statutory mission within a geographical area. Historically, sovereignty was connected to a government’s ability to guarantee the best interests of its own citizens. Therefore, an FPD is typically not beholden to a city or county. For example, a county cannot require the FPD to have an occupancy or building permit; however, city and counties do have state-given jurisdiction regarding sewers, drinking water, traffic control, etc. Sometimes the geographic area of two governmental entities overlaps (such as a county and an FPD). Regulation of one entity over another’s facilities and activities, or of two entities over the same citizens, is a complex area of the law. Both political and legal issues will be in play at the same time, and often with competing answers. Both governing board and legal counsel must be consulted in these situations for guidance. For a more complete discussion of intergovernmental regulation, see Engelage v. City of Warrenton, 378 S.W.3d 410 (Mo. App. 2012) and Community Fire Protection Dist. of St. Louis County v. Board of Ed., 315 S.W.2d 873 (Mo. App. 1958).
Establishment of an FPD in Missouri begins with a petition signed by 100 or more registered voters within the proposed FPD 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 FPD’s population, assessed valuation and taxable intangibles1;
- An estimate of the costs to form the FPD;
- 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 FPD is necessary;
- 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 may be filed in any county in which part of the proposed district is situated (321.030). Because every question put before the FPD’s voters will have to appear on the ballots of all counties in which the proposed district is located, 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). Additional costs imposed by other statutes related to court operations will apply.
After the filing, the court may allow corrections it deems necessary to the petitions, such as correcting errors in land descriptions and ensuring notice of the hearing to be published, and the circuit clerk sends a copy by registered mail to each city and county within the proposed boundaries (321.070). The judge before whom the petition is filed will not be automatically disqualified for being a property owner within the proposed FPD (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 FPD is not desirable or claim that facts set out in the original petition are misstated. The court considers each petition filed before the hearing date at the time of the hearing (321.090).
At the hearing, the court finds that the facts of the petition either justify or do not justify incorporation of the FPD. If incorporation is justified, the court orders the FPD 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 FPD (321.110).
Even when a court orders an FPD incorporated, the order does not become final until FPD voters consent to it in an election. This first FPD election is especially important, with three separate issues to be decided:
- Shall the FPD be incorporated?
- Who shall be the directors?
- Shall the FPD have authority to levy a tax of 30¢ per $100 of assessed value?
The last question is crucial. If voters say, "Yes, incorporate," but "No, don’t tax," matters could be worse than if firefighting had remained a volunteer fire protection association. 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 with a single pair of "Yes" and "No" boxes, so that voters’ consent to incorporate was also consent to being taxed. One FPD 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 FPD and the FPD is in business. The board elected at the same time becomes empowered to act. Within 30 days of incorporation, copies of all court orders, findings and decrees incorporating the FPD must be filed with the recorder of deeds and the county clerk in each county in which the FPD has territory. The fee for recording these forms is $1. (312.150).
A fourth issue of expanding the board size to five members may be submitted to the voters as well, but is not required.
FPD board members serve six-year terms, with biennial elections — every two years. However, to stagger terms so that all board members are not 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. A few FPD board members serve four-year terms (321.687).
FPDs are a political subdivision in which certain persons are prohibited from holding office. For information on these exceptions, see Chapter Ill. Officials and Board Operations and Chapter XVIII. Elections
Checks and balances
By high school, everyone should have learned that the American model of government contains three branches: judicial, legislative and executive branches. Each of the branches of government have "checks and balances" over the other branches, which by design, means that a certain amount of healthy friction is a part of the system.
An FPD does not have its own judicial branch, but uses the state system of circuit, appeals and supreme courts. An FPD’s legislative branch is its board of directors — the congress of the FPD so to speak. The officers of the board are part of the legislative branch.
Just as the vice president of the United States is in the legislative branch, as president of the United States Senate, and in the executive branch, as a backup to the president, the board of directors elects one of its own to chair the board, but also to head up the executive branch by being the president of the FPD. However, the president of the FPD is often more of a figurehead chief executive officer, with the fire chief (FC) usually performing as the chief operating officer on a day-to-day basis. Firefighters are part of the executive branch. For information on the chair and president, see Chapter III. Officials and Board Operations. For more Information on the fire chief, see Chapter XII. Personnel.
Knowing the county classifications of the county (or, counties) in which an FPD is located is important because many FPD laws are written specific to county classification. For instance, a law might say a requirement applies to "any FPD located in a third or fourth class county" or "any FPD wholly located in a first class charter county."
The four county classifications are determined by law (48.020).
1Missouri no longer taxes intangible personal property (bank accounts, stock portfolios, etc.), so intangibles do not need to be evaluated and can be left out of the petition.