Talk of county government taking over fire service in Columbia County is taking a toll on collection fees.
County officials have met for months updating information in the five-year-old fire study, which will outline issues, findings and alternatives for county fire service. One suggestion was adding fire fees to property tax bills.
But before any changes are made, the study must be completed, which is a long process, then the findings must be thoroughly discussed by commissioners, said County Administrator Steve Szablewski.
"I think it is going to be ready in May," Szablewskii said. "I don't think we can make any prediction as to what is going to happen. It is a study that is going to have to be reviewed, debated and discussed. So I don't see an immediate outcome. It is just going to raise the issues."
Collections for the Martinez Fire Department - the largest and only full-time staffed department in the county - are down 4 to 5 percent from this time last year, said David Butler, department administrator. The department has collected roughly 89 percent of billings in the past six years.
"It happens any time the county starts discussing changing the way fire departments are funded in the county, which is what they have been talking about," Butler said. "Everytime the county has discussions about collecting fees - we saw it back in the other fire studies and we overcame it - but we saw it happening.
"People just want to take a wait and see attitude. If they wait and see, it can really harm the fire service if the money is not there to be able to operate at least at the level we are operating now."
Gordon Sparks, president of the board for the Winfield Volunteer Fire Department usually notices the same decrease in collections when county officials start talking about changes to fire service. This time, though, his department's collections are currently slightly ahead of the normal 72 to 73 percent rate.
That's surprising to Butler.
"We have got an advantage having a full-time staff to pursue this," Butler said. "Some of the smaller departments that are all volunteer, they don't have anybody to really go out really and pursue this and collect it."
Since the departments are private, subscription fees are their only source of funding for all operations including staffing, equipment and maintenance.
If the county officials want to change any aspect of fire service, including making fee collection tax-based, nothing would go into effect this calendar year or possibly 2004, Szablewski said.
"It is just a process that is just at the starting point rather than in the middle or near an end," Szablewski said. "It is like we are starting a ten-mile run and we are really at the starting line."
Before changes can be made, commissioners would need to complete the study, review all issues it raises, discuss issues and alternatives with citizens and fire departments before any change can even be proposed.
"The main thing is we just want people in the community to realize it is not on a tax-based system now," Butler said. "If they are waiting to see if it is going to go on a tax-based (system), they need not do that. They need to go ahead and pay their fees until further notice."
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