Residents voiced concerns about Columbia County's draft fire-services study Thursday morning in the first of five public meetings held to solicit public input.
County officials led off the meeting by presenting information on a proposal to use property taxes rather than private subscription fees to fund fire services, and to partially or fully consolidate the county's existing departments.
Oscar Taylor, chairman of Concerned Citizens of Columbia County - a group that has sought improvements in the rural northern end of the county - raised concerns about the relationship between the availability of water and fire protection in undeveloped areas.
"Water and fire protection is a big concern in our area," said Taylor, who lives in the Leah Volunteer Fire Department district. "Some streets have no water. Will the county put water lines in to help fight fires?"
County Administrator Steve Szablewski explained that the county's water department is self-supporting through revenues it generates from customers - it isn't supported by taxes. As a result, water lines usually are extended when there are enough potential customers to pay for them. If the county gets involved in fire service, more water lines could be a possibility, Szablewski said.
Bob Cipperly, an Evans resident in the Martinez Fire Department district, asked a question many of the county's fire officials also have asked: "Where will the money go if it is collected through property taxes?"
Szablewski said the funds would be earmarked for fire service from the district it which it is collected. Careful record-keeping and annual audits would ensure that there would be "no slippage and none cut off the top," he added.
Responding to questions about how the funding would reach those departments, Szablewski said Columbia County would prefer to contract with existing departments, and has no intention of taking them over or running the county's six fire departments out of business.
For the most part, citizens responses were positive and supportive. Cornealious Green, a resident of the Winfield Volunteer Fire Department district, said he looks forward to changes in fire protection in his area if the study's recommendations are implemented.
After Thursday's two meetings, the county has scheduled four more sessions for public comment and questions. The next will be Tuesday, July 29, at 7 p.m. in the Bessie Thomas Community Center in Grovetown. For more information, call Pam Tucker, Emergency Management Agency director, at 868-3303.
Fire study meetings
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
Leah Volunteer Fire Department special called subscriber meeting:
Thursday, July 22 - 7 p.m., Station No. 2, Burks Mountain Road
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