County officials met Thursday with Harlem and Grovetown leaders to quell concerns over possibly funding fire protection through higher property taxes instead of subscription fees.
"What I am hearing is a fear with a lot of folks that the money will get diverted to other areas," said Grovetown City Councilman David Daughtry.
Harlem's department currently collects slightly more than 50 percent of subscriptions in the unincorporated areas of its district, but the tax-based system would raise that to nearly 100 percent.
A county fire-services study released in May recommended a switch to a tax-based system. Supporters of the system say it would ensure all county residents pay a fair, tax-deductible share for fire service.
But some Harlem and Grovetown officials fear that extra funds from full collection will get diverted to other projects or put into the county's general fund and not come back to the department for which they were collected.
"The surplus funds are to improve service or for capital improvements for fire service," said Ron Cross, chairman of the Columbia County Board of Commissioners. "Our intention was never to raise general fund allocations. That money is solely for fire service. Those funds go in top the general fund under a designation for that particular area. The aim is to put money back where it originates from."
County Administrator Steve Szablewski agreed. "What is billed and collected in each area goes to that area and the budget should be written according to how it would be best used," he said.
That helped allay some of the chiefs' fears.
"We can grow and provide better service with that extra money and give people in our district their money's worth," said Harlem Fire Department Chief Raymond Fulcher.
If the cities agree to roll back their taxes to make way for the countywide millage increase for fire service, no referendum is needed. However, a referendum would be needed to exclude the incorporated areas from the tax increase.
"Our main concern is how the money will be handled," Daughtry said. "If the money goes back to the departments, I don't think anybody would have a problem with this plan."
The county would contract with existing departments to serve their current districts. Private departments can be contracted only for two years at a time, while the two city departments can be contracted for up to 10 years because they already have many other contracts, including other public services, with the county, said Pam Tucker, county Emergency Services Division director.
The first thing Cross hopes to accomplish is to make sure payment is equalized among residents.
"Those who pay are supporting those who don't pay," Cross said. "That is not an equitable situation. Our first aim is to get equality in the payment for fire service. We don't have that now. Some people are getting service at the convenience of those who do pay. The details need to be refined, but the concept is absolute - everyone pays, everyone gets service."
Harlem City Councilman Johnny Thigpen said most officials think the idea is a good one, but there are some concerns.
"If we can improve service, there is no question. Everyone here wants to improve service," he said. "It is just what path we choose to get there."
The Columbia County Board of Commissioners has scheduled a series of public meetings to gather input on the draft fire services study:
Thursday, July 17 - 9 a.m., Columbia County Government Center Auditorium
Thursday, July 17 - 7 p.m., Savannah Rapids Pavilion Grand Rapids Room
Tuesday, July 29 - 7 p.m., Bessie Thomas Community Center, Grovetown
Wednesday, July 30 - 7 p.m., Columbia County Government Center Auditorium
Thursday, July 31 - 7 p.m., Eubank Blanchard Community Center, Appling
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