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Tennessee home burns to ground while firefighters watch from afar

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By Leigh Goessl     Dec 7, 2011 in Politics
South Fulton - An issue that sparked controversy last year after a resident watched his home burn, as firefighters watched on, has emerged again.
The ongoing controversy, which made national headlines last year, surrounds a fire protection fee that is set for rural residents in Obion County, Tennessee.
The controversy has arisen again after a rural home in the same county burned down on Monday, and firefighters stood by and watched the fire. As the trailer burned, the fire victims stood nearby at a family member's residence and watched their home turn to ashes.
MSNBC reported the homeowner, Vicky Bell, said, "You could look out my mom's trailer and see the trucks sitting at a distance. "We just wished we could've gotten more out."
It is not because the firefighters don't care, but it is because they are ordered to not intervene based on the "Pay for Spray" policy the city of South Fulton has in place. Under this program, homeowners that reside outside city limits and do not have a local fire department can be protected under South Fulton's department, however a $75 fee is required; it is likened to an insurance fee.
In September 2010 the city of South Fulton gained national attention after a home that was located in the fire district burned to the ground as firefighters stood in the distance. The reason why the firefighters did not battle the blaze was because the homeowner hadn't paid the $75 fire protection fee under South Fulton's "Pay for Spray" policy.
In Monday's fire, the homeowner hadn't paid the fee either. However according to CBS affiliate KFVS 12, it wasn't because the homeowner forgot or didn’t want to pay; the reason was because they weren't eligible for the fee.
According to the KFVS 12 report Bell said none of the trailers in her area qualify for insurance and, due to this, they are not eligible to pay a fee to receive rural fire protection service under the City of South Fulton rules.
"I'm not mad at the city, I understand," Bell said.
Her focus appears to be more on how to rebuild her life now that she and Brian Gilbert, her boyfriend, have lost their home and everything in it.
"We have no idea where we will go from here," said Bell. "We are very lucky it was minutes from getting us." If it wasn't for the couple's cat, they might not have woken up.
"He was shaking Brian's leg and Brian yelled at me to get up," said Bell. "We don't know where the cat is now."
Firefighters did not battle the blaze, however they did stand by. South Fulton will provide assistance if a life is at stake, even if the fee isn't paid.
The Mayor of South Fulton issued a statement regarding the most recent fire which read, "According to the policy, the City of South Fulton provides rural service to residents who have paid the rural fire membership fee. This policy has been in place since 1990."
The statement went on to say 700 of 900 properties have paid the fee. Mayor David Crocker says this issue is not a city issue, but a county one, and, while they can offer fire protection service, they cannot mandate people to accept it.
NBC affiliate WPSD 6 reported, County Mayor Benny McGuire said, "To me, it's not an issue. To me it's like car insurance. If you have a car, you pay insurance. If you want protection, you pay the price."
Mayor McGuire, in response to Mayor Crocker's saying the issue is a county-level one, admitted the current setup for fire protection using South Fulton's services in exchange for a fee "isn't ideal", but it is the best of the three options currently available. Other possibilities would be to build a new countywide fire department from the ground up (large tax increase), or to initiate a smaller tax increase to residents, which would then be allocated to local fire departments.
Regarding "Pay for Spray, Mayor McGuire said, "It's the best solution to the problem that we could come up with in the short period of time," adding, "If people of this county want a countywide fire department, they're going to have to pay for it and it's going to be very costly."
Donations for Vicky Bell and Brian Gilbert are being collected by Northwestern Tennessee Disaster Services (additional information regarding donations is included in the WPSD 6 story).
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