NICHOLASVILLE — A dozen homeowners in northwestern Jessamine County filed a lawsuit Friday that challenges the legality of a fire protection subdistrict.
The plaintiffs contend the property tax that funds the North Jessamine Subdistrict of the Jessamine County Fire District violates the constitutional requirement that taxes "shall be uniform upon all property of the same class."
The suit against Jessamine Fiscal Court and the Jessamine County Fire District was filed after the homeowners failed to convince public officials with those governmental bodies and with the state attorney general's office to review the legality of the subdistrict tax.
Jessamine County Judge-Executive Neal Cassity said of the suit Saturday: "I think that's probably the only way you'll ever really know whether it's a bona fide tax. If they feel that's what they need to do, that's what they need to do."
Ron Eldridge, chairman of the Jessamine County Fire District, said, "We'll work with whatever the (court) result is."
Plaintiffs who filed the suit in Jessamine Circuit Court are: Carole Herman, Daniel Bork, Jack W. Bullock, Timothy E. Echelard, Ann Ehigner Galvin, Margery Hardy, Linda Hostetter, Kris Steubs, Vernon Shriver, Tim and Paula Gisler Wolf and William Van Epps.
In 1995, residents successfully petitioned Jessamine Fiscal Court to create the North Jessamine Subdistrict, which includes an area north of Catnip Hill Road and west of the CSX railroad tracks to the county line. It is believed to be the only fire protection subdistrict in Kentucky.
About 1,500 households in Windhaven, Equestrian Estates, Clays Mill Crossing, and other northwestern Jessamine subdivisions pay 4.6 cents per $100 of real property in addition to the 5 cents per $100 levied on all Jessamine taxpayers for fire protection. (The subdistrict tax rate for 2010-2011 was reduced from 4.8 cents per $100 a few weeks ago.)
The subdistrict tax raises about $321,000 in revenue per year, according to information that state Sen. Tom Buford, R-Nicholasville, submitted to the state legislature earlier this year. The county fire district has a general fund budget of more than $1 million.
State law says the subdistrict revenue should be spent "solely on improving fire protection facilities and services in the subdistrict," and should not be used on facilities and services shared by the entire county fire district.
But the plaintiffs who filed suit allege that taxes they have paid solely for fire-safety improvements in their area have been used for the county as a whole.
In 2009, the state auditor's office criticized the subdistrict for commingling tax money collected from northwestern Jessamine and spending it on facilities and services outside the subdistrict. The suit alleges that the county fire district "has misappropriated thousands of dollars" of the subdistrict tax.
The suit seeks a declaratory judgment that the subdistrict tax is unconstitutional. It also seeks a judgment declaring that KRS 75.015, the 1994 law that allowed the subdistrict's creation, is unconstitutional.
The plaintiffs also seek a judgment saying that collected taxes were misappropriated in violation of the state constitution that requires "no tax levied and collected for one purpose shall ever be devoted to another purpose."
The homeowners who filed suit say they are entitled to audit, and that all funds "commingled, converted and expended on salaries, facilities, equipment and services" shared by the entire fire district should be restored to the account of the subdistrict.
The plaintiffs also seek a refund, and a declaratory judgment that fiscal court and the fire district shall be responsible for all debts incurred as a result of the unconstitutional tax.
The fire subdistrict is an issue in the Nov. 2 election for county judge-executive. Mark Tucker, the Republican challenger for judge-executive, said subdistrict residents deserve their money's worth.
"They're paying the tax but they're not getting the services they deserve," Tucker said.
If elected, Tucker said he will see that the Station 6 firehouse off U.S. 68 has a 24/7 fire crew and an ambulance stationed there. The station is now staffed by a daytime crew of firefighters.
Cassity, the incumbent and a Democrat, was campaigning Saturday afternoon on Windhaven Drive in northwestern Jessamine, and said no voters in the area have discussed displeasure about the subdistrict tax with him. He said one woman supported creation of the subdistrict in 1995 and "she liked it the way it was."
"I'm sure they're talking about it a lot amongst themselves," Cassity said.