John Thielen says people who live in mobile homes are paying too much for fire service in the Billings Urban Fire Service Area. Hundreds of people living within BUFSA agree.
About 180 people who live in mobile homes within BUFSA have signed petitions objecting to the new method of charging for fire service. Previously, properties in BUFSA were assessed according to the property's market value.
Under the old formula, people who owned mobile homes and the underlying property paid a 75-mill property tax, and property tax relief was available to people with low incomes. Those who rented their mobile home space paid a flat fee of $66 a year.
Under the new formula that went into effect this year, all residential properties - mobile homes and traditional houses - are assessed at 9.7 cents per square foot of living space. Outbuildings are also assessed at 2 cents per square foot. The revised fee schedule provides a minimum charge of $35 per year and a maximum charge of $500 per year. The new fee schedule includes no provision to provide tax relief for low-income people, Thielen said.
Thielen says the new assessment method has resulted in steep rate increases to many low-income people who live in mobile homes.
Thielen, a retiree who lives in a mobile home on Danford Drive, said his own fire-service fee increased by $108 a year. But others have seen even steeper increases.
"When it comes to the financially disadvantaged, it gives them a choice of eating or buying their prescription or paying" the fee, Thielen said.
BUFSA is an unincorporated area surrounding Billings. It is bordered on the south by the Yellowstone River and on the west by 72nd Street West. It also encompasses an area north of Billings Logan International Airport and extends east of Billings Heights. The Billings Fire Department provides fire protection and emergency medical services to BUFSA under a $717,000-per-year contract.
Cheri Reynolds, who chairs the BUFSA board, said some board members have expressed an interest in exploring ways to provide relief for low-income residents. The board received the signed petitions at a meeting held earlier this week, but no official action has taken place, she said.
Reynolds said the BUFSA board opted for a fee system based on square footage because all residents - people living in mobile homes as well as those in site-built homes - would pay according to the size of their dwelling. The new system seeks a "fair and equitable fire-service fee," based on the size of the dwelling, she said.
"Regardless of the difference in construction, both kinds of houses (mobile homes and site-built homes) are built of flammable materials," Reynolds said.
"We believe a mobile home needs as much protection as a (site-built) house. The fee is not based on assessed valuation so much as what is needed to provide the service."
Under the old funding formula, there was no way to assess garages, sheds and other out buildings associated with mobile homes. Under the new formula, all out buildings are assessed, and that may have contributed to steeper rate increases for some people, Reynolds said.
Some owners of mobile homes saw an increase in their fire-service fees. But other mobile-home owners had their fees go down under the new formula, Reynolds said.
Yellowstone County Treasurer Max Lenington doesn't support the new method of charging for fire service within BUFSA.
It's not equitable to place the same value per square foot on a mobile home as on a traditional home, Lenington said.
County Commissioner Jim Reno agrees with Lenington, and he plans to ask for changes in the BUFSA fee structure when the matter comes before commissioners later this year.
"People live in a mobile home because that's what they can afford," Reno said, adding that he would prefer going to a fixed charge for mobile homes.
Tom Howard can be reached at 657-1261 or at email@example.com.
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