Columbia County officials made the right move last week when they approved new fire department district lines that clear up confusion between a couple of neighborhoods.
Now theyre prepared to take the next step and improve fire protection for the entire county.
The small changes approved last week shift territory in Misty Woods and Ivy Falls from the Grovetown Department of Public Safety and the Appling Volunteer Fire Department. The Martinez Fire Department takes over the property, along with the subscription fees the homeowners pay.
The shift doesnt do much to Grovetown, which will easily make up the lost subscribers within its high-growth community. But its a tough blow to tiny Appling, even though Martinez doesnt take over the subscription fees until next year.
I dont know what it is the small departments have done wrong, Appling Chief Tom McFarland laments. We feel like the county is out to get us.
The feeling is understandable. This is the second time in recent years the county has shifted the districts of the private departments, and each time Martinez has taken a chunk of territory from Appling.
In the midst of these minor changes, an amazing conversion has taken place that offers a solution for long-term health of the small departments, and for more cost-effective fire protection for the entire county.
The shift is in the opinion of John Tomberlin, the respected former chief of Grovetowns department and an author of the countys 1997 fire services study.
Tomberlin had been opposed to the concept of allowing the county to levy a fire tax on residents, and then pay the private fire departments to provide fire services. Currently, each department collects fees within its district, and has little leverage when residents dont pay.
Now, Tomberlin says the county shouldnt just give Martinez new territory, but should also move ahead with a tax-supported system for the whole county.
Having been strongly against it in 97, I believe we need to take it out to a referendum and get it switched to a tax, Tomberlin says.
This is a welcome switch.
Commissioners and firefighters all want the best protection for the county, and understand the only way to achieve it is with stations manned with paid firefighters.
But while the days of unpaid volunteers are numbered, a large portion of the county still depends on those dedicated firefighters for its safety. If Martinez expands into pieces of their territory, small departments in Appling, Leah and Winfield cant survive.
County officials are updating that 1997 study, and will release the results in a few weeks. The time is right to follow Tomberlins lead by pushing forward with a comprehensive plan that protects the small departments while improving fire service for everyone in Columbia County.
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