In case you missed it, former Lakeland mayor and BOC member Scott Carmichael has decided to run again for a seat on the BOC. Mr. Carmichael has been a central figure in the history of Lakeland-as close to a career Lakeland politician as there is-and therefore we have decided to begin this series highlighting his “accomplishments” in office, drawing a line to the City’s present. This is the first article in the series we have dubbed:
HOW THE POLICIES OF SCOTT CARMICHAEL CRIPPLED THE CITY OF LAKELAND
Well that was a bit of a slip, right? Of course, the fees the citizens of Lakeland pay for fire, ambulance and hazmat are not a tax. But still those that oppose, well, everything (you know who you are) like to say that Lakeland has the highest taxes of any municipality because of the fire
tax fee-sorry, I did it again-even though Lakeland’s tax rate is the lowest in Shelby County. It is amusing to see these people complain about the Fire Fee (especially after the most recent 15% increase!) because this fee has been in existence since 1997 and with better planning under Scott Carmichael, could have been alleviated by now. How, you might ask? Well…
In 2009, then Mayor Carmichael was told by Shelby County Fire that the one fire house in Lakeland was not enough for its swelling population. This was prior to the Lake District, prior to most of the housing developments we see today, prior to the institution of a property tax; shoot, Lakeland even had its own Kroger (we did! What happened to it? Wait for part 2 of this series)! So, in 2010 the mayor decided he would take action regarding Lakeland fire.
In 2011 (that is a year later) the City finally began working on an agreement with Shelby County to build and operate a second fire house. On August 7, 2012, the City approved this agreement, which stated that the City would construct and own the second fire station and the County would operate out of it, providing equipment and personnel (this is the same agreement as was put in place for the first firehouse). The City decided that given the revenue flow of the day, a Lakeland fire fee (not a tax) would be implemented and would piggy-back on the existing Shelby County fire fee—but, since there would be a new fire station being added to the County, Shelby County would have to increase its fire fee to accommodate the additional operating costs. The total cost of these two fees (still not taxes) would have doubled what Lakeland citizens were paying prior. Additionally, Tennessee Code Annotated did not allow for a municipality to collect fire fees (apparently Mayor Carmichael did not do his homework). Legislation was introduced on behalf of Lakeland to reverse the Code, but it was unsuccessful. Therefore, the agreement fell through and it was back to the proverbial drawing board for Lakeland. The need for the fire station did not go away and Carmichael decided it would be best to do…nothing.
Now, understand that at this time Lakeland did not have a residential property tax that would allow the City to pay for these needs. The City rented out all its infrastructure needs a higher cost than doing it themselves. This practice started when Lakeland was founded in 1977 and continued through 2014 when the first property tax in Lakeland was enacted. Despite crumbling infrastructure, despite local sales tax that was slowly dwindling, Lakeland under Carmichael decided it would be best to allow the future of Lakeland to be compromised if they could live in their idyllic present. Carmichael did attempt to raise funds for the city coffers by asking residents for donations. The program was widely mocked by our neighboring municipalities and raised about $3500.
Fast forward to 2018 under Mayor Wyatt Bunker, Board of Commissioners members Josh Roman and Wesley Wright, and City Manager Jim Atkinson. A plan was brought forward to create a Lakeland Fire Department. The plan was much more thought out and legally much more feasible; legislation had been passed to allow municipalities to levy fire fees. The proposed plan would have discontinued Shelby County fire fees and replaced them with fees levied by Lakeland, built a new station, equipped each station with a four-man truck and maintained Lakeland’s home insurance rating. With the most recent
Shelby County fire fee increase of 15%, the fire cost to Lakeland citizens is $2.8-$3 million per year. The cost of bringing a fire department to the City would be around $1.6 to $1.7 million per year. This relates to an annual savings of about $1 million per year. These savings would have been used to pay for the project until it was paid down enough to incorporate into the City’s property tax with no tax increase. This proposal was loudly objected to by those who support Mr. Carmichael and was ultimately abandoned when current Mayor Cunningham forced the City into a Sophie's Choice to prioritize the Lakeland high school initiative or the fire department (there were no financial reasons that would have kept both projects on track simultaneously).
Scott Carmichael had ample opportunity in the 8 years he was in office to forge a responsible plan to create a Lakeland fire department to protect the City and mark the path forward for Lakeland. He failed to do so, deciding he would rather maintain the status quo than look to the future. This occurs time and time again in multiple arenas and has become his legacy. We cannot allow this legacy to once again infect the City. When it is time to vote this year, do not let Lakeland’s future become its irresponsible past.