Leah fire-service subscribers expressed skepticism Tuesday over a county proposal to replace subscription fees with a tax.
About 30 Leah residents attended the specially called meeting at Leah Fire Station No. 2, and most expressed uneasiness at the idea of Columbia County government getting involved in fire service.
The meeting came just days after two county-sponsored public meetings explaining the results of the recently updated fire study. The public meetings were sparsely attended, but most people who attended were in favor of the county's fire proposal.
The Leah meeting began with a presentation from County Administrator Steve Szablewski, who the county recommendations contained in a draft study of fire service.
Subscribers and Leah fire officials say that replacing the subscriptions with a tax as proposed by the county would be unfair and cost taxpayers more.
The fire study recommends raising the property tax millage rate by 1.62 mills, with the money designated for fire service in the district from which it is collected.
Leah's fire subscription fees are based on the value of a subscriber's home, with a cap set at $175. By state law, the property tax would be based on a percentage of the value of a resident's home, property and vehicles.
"If you live in Martinez with a small house and two cars, this looks good," said Frank Lanier, a Leah resident and member of the Leah Fire Department Board of Trustees. "If you own 20 acres up here, it's very different."
However, according to the fire study, the 2003 subscription fee for a home worth $87,915 in Leah is $109.89. Under the property tax plan, for the same home, including $20,320 worth of property and $19,250 worth of vehicles, the homeowner would only pay $82.61. The study demonstrates that in nearly all cases, a property tax would be lower than current subscription fees.
"We're not coming here like a hostile takeover," Szablewski said. "We were asked to look into it (by the Columbia County Board of Commissioners). We did, and there are pros and cons either way we go."
Other board members said the fire study was full of inaccuracies, but Szablewski reminded them that the current study is only a draft. He said it is currently being revised and the final study would be completed in early August.
After Szablewski left the meeting, the board members told subscribers of a possible plan to unite the Leah, Appling and Winfield volunteer fire departments, based on a recommendation in the fire study.
The study proposes combining the districts and then building a central, manned fire station in Phinizy to service all three communities.
"Even if the county went to a property tax to fund fire service, I still don't believe it's feasible to man a station in Phinizy," said Brice Reynolds, assistant fire chief and president of the board for the Leah Fire Department. "Even if there were enough money to hire full-time firefighters, there still would be too long a response time for them to reach the far ends of the county."
Lanier, on behalf of the board, proposed hiring three firefighters, one in each district, to work Monday through Friday from 8 a.m to 5 p.m.
"Our biggest problem is having people here during the day when most of the volunteers are working," he said. "Responding to fires isn't a problem at night, because we're all close by then. But having them here during the day would make sure everyone is protected at all hours of the day."
The board and subscribers also expressed worries about the possibility that the county would contract with existing departments for fire service, and then re-bid to private industry when the contract ends. They also wondered if the county would pay off the fire departments' current debts.
When a subscriber asked board members if they endorsed the fire study's recommendations, the members responded with a resounding "no."
Leah Fire Chief Charles Hogan said, "We're trying to guide our own destiny instead of letting them guide it for us."
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