Former Columbia County Commissioner Frank Spears did a lot of things while in office, including getting a tough ordinance against massage parlors and booting video poker out.
But one of the initiatives that failed was any change in the way Columbia County homes are protected from fires. It never made sense to Spears - nor to many other residents - that fire protection isnt a tax-funded service here. Many newcomers are startled to learn that the county has little role in fire protection.
Nearly five years ago, a comprehensive study recommended the county take over billing for fire service, and in turn pay the private fire departments under contract to provide fire protection. The arrangement would be similar to the contract the county has with Gold Cross for ambulance service, or with Martinez and Grovetown fire departments for accident-victim extrication.
Such a system has obvious benefits. Current-ly, some homeowners - especially in the Winfield, Appling and Leah fire departments zones - wont pay their fees. A fire tax would boost collection rates to nearly 100 percent, similar to property taxes. A higher collection rate also could reduce individual fees, which currently must factor the cost of non-payers.
Homeowners could claim such payments on their income taxes, and get a federal deduction.
Such a plan also has advantages for the fire departments. Their revenues would be far more reliable, and their expenses could go down, too. If Columbia Countys fire services operated under contract with the county, they could take ad-vantage of the countys tax-free purchasing power when buying new equipment.
Better service, lower rates, cheaper fire equipment. So why did the recommendations fail?
Two reasons. First, six fire departments in the county mean six chiefs and six territories, six groups of firefighters and volunteers with six sets of loyalties. In addition to the natural desire to protect turf, many firefighters didnt trust the county to pass along the funds without first taking a hefty cut, and not without bureaucratic strings.
Second, most homeowners have little reason to worry about their fire protection. And in the absence of a clear, concrete problem, there is no community clamor to change. People dont like change, even if its for their own good; status quo prevented the plan from getting any momentum.
So any chance at reform died. It came up again a couple of years ago and died again. And now its back.
This time, a couple of forces are driving an effort to update the fire study. There is a proposal in the works for Martinez Fire Department, which oper-ates with full-time firefighters and covers the largest area of Columbia County, to take over some territory from the all-volunteer Appling Fire Department.
Applings chief says the move would kill his small department, and blames county officials; the county rightly points out that Martinezs full-time paid staff is better equipped to handle fires near its William Few Parkway station.
he reforms also may get a renewed push because of a fire this weekend that destroyed a Winfield home. No one is casting blame, but it would be like ignoring the elephant in the room if there were no scrutiny of Winfields all-volunteer response.
Such questions undoubtedly will make the rural departments defensive. But they may also lead homeowners to wonder if status quo is still good enough.
(Barry L. Paschal is publisher of The Columbia County News-Times. E-mail comments to email@example.com, or call 863-6165, extension 106.)
The Columbia County News-Times ©2013. All Rights Reserved.