Extinguished? The controversial Luther Fire Subscription

Bison Blinds

The Luther Town Board of Trustees voted to hold a Special Meeting for the public to regroup about a controversial fire subscription ordinance that quietly passed back in August. The ordinance calls for a $250 annual subscription for those living outside the town limits but within the larger surrounding fire district. While some paid the fee, still others had questions and turned out again at the Dec. 14, 2021, meeting at Town Hall.

Some say they would gladly support the volunteer fire department given more information and accountability. They also say this ordinance amounts to taxation without representation.

Before the citizens spoke, Trustee Carla Caruthers said she would like to “go back to the drawing board,” scrap the ordinance, and knock the subscription fee down to $150.

“You were right. We were wrong,” she said.

The fire subscription issue heated up (see October article) after being introduced via a letter (see article).

Incidentally, a line item in the current town budget received by the Oklahoma Secretary of State on July 12, 2021, adds a revenue line, the projected $36,000 in revenue from Fire Subscriptions. Note: Most of the Town of Luther’s revenue comes from sales (not property) taxes generated by those who buy goods and services in town or online.

Many of the concerned citizens who spoke, although living outside of town limits, are active in volunteer service and/or run local businesses. Their questions ranged from the simple legality of the ordinance to the accountability promised. They were armed with research on statutes and detailed comparisons of other subscription fees from volunteer fire districts. “I worked hard to find another fire subscription service that charged $250,” said Brandy Langston. The citizens brought expertise on insurance rates, fire and emergency management service, and a long memory when it comes to the reputation of the Luther Fire Department, traditionally operated by volunteers who battled the horrible fire of 2011, plus other disasters including ice storms, tornadoes, and floods.

At one point, when a local attorney asked about the legality of the ordinance targeted toward residents outside the town limits, the mayor pondered whether the fire department should then only provide fire service within the town limits. That brought swift comments from other residents reiterating that the fire department operates with equipment and maintenance services provided by Oklahoma County government to serve its jurisdictional unincorporated areas. Town attorney Beth Anne Childs said she will gather the relevant legal research on the issue, indicating it’s more complicated than pointing to a statute.

They say all politics is local. They also should say all politics is complicated. But it is a little less complicated when conversations are held (however, not the closed-door kind), and there is focused listening to find collaboration.

Extinguished, but watch for hotspots

The public meeting is scheduled for Tues., Feb. 8, 2022, and the Board is expected to officially revisit the ordinance after that, presumably after there’s been time to digest the community expertise and input.

For your convenience, below is a video of the meeting, the ordinance that passed in August, November’s Luther Fire Department call report, and the current Town Budget. If you’re still reading (THANK YOU!), look below the video for your editor’s two cents and a call to support local news, FWIW.

Editorial Note. A chunk of the discussion around this issue has revolved around communication or lack thereof. While the elected officials say they communicated about the ordinance, others disagree. One thing I know, there’s never enough communication about anything, and I spend a lot of my days fretting about it in my day job and with my side hustle that you’re reading now. May I with an opinion? We all have a part to play. A government entity bound by Open Records and Open Meetings laws can go above and beyond the bare minimum of slapping paper agendas with tape to a window, and Luther does this with a tiny staff and they do it way better than they used to. Technology and professionalism helps that along. From updating the town website regularly, emailing agendas to a subscription list, posting on social media as well as doing the old-fashioned taping of an agenda to the window, I see all of those things before every meeting, and since I work in that space as well, I know it doesn’t magically happen. I remember when the taped paper was the ONLY way we saw agendas! And it wasn’t that long ago.

The town staff does all of this well. Most of those methods of communication are beyond the scope of the law, but definitely within the spirit of transparency because the law has not kept up with modern technology. Don’t get me started on how much money the Town has to spend to publish notices in print newspapers, and why The Luther Register, as a digital-only publication, does not qualify as a publication of record.

I believe the board members when they say they thought they communicated well. Once you’re on the inside of something, it’s easy to think that what you know, everyone knows. If there’s one lesson that I’ve learned, short of mass telepathy and a written communications plan, that’s impossible. And short of telepathy, it takes effort and work, aka a communications plan, to push out the message and an abundant skillset that involves tech-savvy, knowing your audience, knowing where, how and all of the ways to reach them, good spelling, tact, and knowing something about algorithms, local history and your neighbor.

What part does the public play? Sign up for the emails on the town’s website, attend the (mostly boring) meetings, and hold your public officials accountable, and in this case, even if you do not vote for them. Do this for your closest city government, school board, county commission, and more. Engage as necessary. Or, may I suggest you also support community news, and yours truly, because with support and momentum The Luther Register will read the agendas, attend those meetings, do the research and spill the tea. That’s the offer. Again, thanks for reading.

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