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story.lead_photo.caption In this photo from the Belle Fire Department's website, fire trucks sit outside the fire station bays in Belle, Mo.

BELLE, Mo. -- The volunteer fire department in Belle can stay afloat on current funding, but there's no money for major upgrades.

So says Fire Chief Dwight Francis in advance of an April 4 ballot issue to authorize the Mari-Osa Fire Protection District board to establish a property tax levy of up to 30 cents per $100 assessed valuation.

The district encompasses 102 square miles in northern Maries and southern Osage counties, including Belle and surrounding rural areas. The fire department is currently funded from two sources — city taxes inside Belle and voluntary fees from rural members outside the city.

Francis reports the department's current annual budget is around $56,000 from those sources. If passed, the levy would establish a district-wide property tax, replacing rural membership fees and the department's funding from the city. It's estimated the levy would bring in approximately $80,000 annually.

If the levy passes, Belle officials have pledged to reduce the in-town property tax by 8 percent, the amount used to fund the fire department, Francis said, and the $45 fee charged for a rural membership would be eliminated.

"Everyone, whether inside the city or out of town, will pay the same rate, based on property you own," he noted. "The money to fund the fire department will be collected on your taxes just like the school, ambulance district and others."

Francis said the funding will be used for routine operations and to maintain and replace equipment, including future fire trucks and vehicle extrication equipment.

The department reports it responded to 248 emergency calls and logged 974 man hours in 2016. Even with extra revenue, Francis said the department plans to remain all volunteer, with no funding used to hire any paid staff.

The department will host a third public meeting to discuss the levy proposal at 6 p.m. Sunday at the fire station in Belle. The public also can read more information and ask questions on the fire department's Facebook page at facebook.com/Bellevolfire.

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