Legal battle could blaze with county
DeSoto City Council members want to provide fire protection to all city residents and are prepared to take legal action to do so.
Council members decided last Thursday night to file a petition in district court appealing the decision of the Johnson County Commission not to detach parts of Rural Fire District No. 3 located in the city of DeSoto.
Commissioners denied the city's request to be allowed to provide fire protection to an area in the rural fire district annexed by the city over the past 15 years. The majority of the five square mile area in dispute was annexed by the city in 1998.
DeSoto officials asked for the detachment last summer and had since been waiting for a decision by the commissioners. A detachment would mean DeSoto would have the right to levy property taxes in the area and consequently increase its fire protection budget.
The commissioners denied the request at their March 30 meeting, stating the city doesn't have enough fire fighting equipment to adequately protect the area. The commissioners also said the detachment would cost the rural fire district up to $67,000 in revenue next year. The budget cut would force the district to raise its mill levy or reduce its services, commissioners said.
The decision left city officials with what council president Duke Neeland described as a catch 22. Without the detachment and the property taxes that would follow, the city doesn't have the money to expand its fire department. If the detachment was granted, Neeland said, the city would purchase the extra equipment.
According to law, the city has 30 days to file an appeal.
Council members discussed the matter in closed-door meetings April 3 and again April 6. The council returned from the executive session and took no immediate action on the matter. A motion to file the appeal was made by council member John Taylor at the end of the meeting, during a time set aside for council comments. Taylor was the last council member to speak and the first to bring up the issue of the fire district.
"My personal feeling is that we need to pursue legal action," Taylor said.
Council member Linda Zindler was the only one to speak against the motion. Zindler said the legal fees spent on the lawsuit would outweigh the city's chances of winning.
"I don't want to see a lawsuit. I think it's a terrible waste of the taxpayers' money," she said. "We would be spending $20,000 to $25,000 without very good odds of success."
Council member Brad Seaman supported the lawsuit, but worried about filing it in Johnson County.
"Can we file this in some other county or state with a judge who wouldn't know our commissioners?" he asked.
City Attorney Mike Howe explained the city would have to prove that some conflict of interest would exist in Johnson County.
"Of course we can't show that, but I have pretty good reason to believe it happens." Seaman said.
The council voted 4-1 to file the appeal. Zindler was the dissenting vote.
Zindler said Monday her reasons for voting against the lawsuit were two-fold.
"First is the expense involved. I would guess we've spent around $15,000 already in legal fees for the fire district," she said. "And we're looking at a couple of thousand more just to file, then up to $25,000 after that. Our odds of winning aren't good. I wouldn't take those odds professionally and I won't take them for the city."
Secondly, Zindler said, she doesn't like the idea of one government entity suing another.
"I just think we could take a more positive approach working with them," she said. "My heavens, if we spent on (fire) equipment the money we'll spend on legal fees, we could start building assets."
Zindler believes the county would be more willing to work with the city if council members would be willing to take the first few steps.
"The way I see it, they made their decision with the safety of the residents in mind. It wasn't political," she said. "We've said we can provide the fire protection and I think the commission is saying 'show me.'"
DeSoto City Attorney Mike Howe said the battle with the county could last up to a year. Once the city files its appeal, the county has 30 days to answer.
"Right there you have a 60-day period," he said. "Then each party is permitted additional time for discovery."
During the discovery process, attorneys can take depositions from people with knowledge of the case, which in this instance could include county officials, Howe said.
Following the discovery period, attorneys for both sides meet with the judge for a discovery conference. At that time, the attorneys tell the judge how many depositions they've taken and provide the court with an estimated time frame for presenting their cases.
During the pretrial period both sides file motions and try to dispose of the case before it goes to trial, Howe said. If that can't be done, the final decision will be made by the judge.