The updated Columbia County fire-services study covers where Columbia County's fire departments have been, where they are and recommendations for where they should go.
It is 75 pages of numbers, charts, diagrams, maps and plans looking at operations, equipment, budgets, districts, communications, mutual aid and preparation for emergencies and disasters. But it all comes down to one question: What's the best way to provide fire service to Columbia County residents?
To get there, officials had to lay out where the county is in 2003.
Since 1950, the county's population has increased tenfold, from 9,525 in 1950 to 95,000 in 2002. That growth is expected to continue to more than 164,000 by 2020, according to the county's Growth Management Plan.
In terms of fire service, the county has six fire districts. The Grovetown and Harlem departments are run by the cities' governments. Leah, Appling, Winfield and Martinez are subscriber-based departments that serve unincorporated areas of the county.
Of those departments, Leah, Appling and Winfield are all-volunteer; Harlem has one paid staffer and Martinez and Grovetown offer 24-hour coverage.
"There is a lot to be said for what (service) we have," said County Administrator Steve Szablewski.
But the county is by itself when compared to peer communities - those with similar population numbers, especially - across Georgia. Most of those communities offer county fire service or some type of combination that provides 24-hour coverage to the entire county, Szablewski said.
Recognizing the service offered by the existing departments is at the top of the 10 recommendations in the study, said Szablewski, who helped write the original fire study in 1997 and this year's revision.
"Those people fought fires and built departments and should be recognized for all they did," he said. "But everyone wants to run their own show to a certain extent."
The recommendations also look at possible changes to the way fire services are provided and funded. One of the recommendations pushed hardest by county leaders is implementation of a fire tax - a charge added to annual tax bills that would replace subscriber fees.
Part of the advantage is an increased collection rate, Szablewski said. Department collection rates now range from 50 to 89 percent; tax-collection rates would be near 100 percent.
A fire tax also would be tax deductible for homeowners, and funding fire departments with tax dollars would exempt them from paying a 7 percent state and local sales taxes when they purchase equipment.
If the tax alternative is approved, the fees would be added to the tax bill as extra mills, said County Tax Commissioner Kay Allen. The exact amount of mills has not yet been determined, but officials estimate it would be 1.62 mills.
"If they decide to do this, we would have to have a study of what our actual needs are," Szablewski said.
Current paying subscribers are expected to end up paying slightly less, Szablewski said. But it's a balancing act: People who pay the subscription now should pay less, and people who don't pay the fee will certainly pay more, officials said.
For example, using a home valued at $126,959 - which is the county average - on 2 1/2 acres in Harlem valued at $23,341 and two newer vehicles and one old one, the taxable amount is $60,127. Using 2.0 as an example, multiplying by the 2.0 millage rate totaling a $135.72 fire service tax fee.
Using the current $1.10 per $1,000 of value on improvements only in the Harlem fire district, the subscription fee would be $139.65 covering the home only - $4 more than private fire departments covered the home alone.
According to state law, county commissioners can raise the millage rate for fire service operating costs without a referendum. Any special-purpose local option sales tax funds used for equipment would need to be listed on the sales-tax referendum.
"Obviously, they are still talking to citizens and listening to citizens," Szablewski said.
10 Findings and Recommendations:
1. The private fire departments should be recognized, either with a monument at a future training facility or with the Columbia Memorial Gardens.
2. Officials should look at some consolidation of department functions.
3. Fire departments could use a combination of paid full-time and volunteer firefighters to provide 24-hour fire protection throughout the county.
4. Implement a fire tax in place of subscription fees would be more cost effective.
5. Using special-purpose local option sales tax funds to purchase new equipment and build new stations would bypass the 7-cent state and local sales tax.
6. Georgia's constitution and legislature should authorize a county fire department.
7. The study should be used as a resource to establish a master plan for future fire services.
8. Officials should create a comprehensive training program, with a possible training facility.
9. Contracts need to be signed between the county and all departments on service and district line changes.
10. Management is needed for a single department or contracts to more than one. The Emergency Services Division director already oversees emergency medical service contracts and the Community and Emergency Services Committee could manage a single county department or the contracts.
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