Now that Columbia County officials have finished a series of public meetings to talk about a plan for revamping the countys fire services, whats next?
Well soon have the answer as County Administrator Steve Szablewski - who authored the fire services study - revises the plan based on public input, and presents a cleaned-up version to county commissioners.
If the comments in those meetings are any indication, there has been a tremendous change in the publics receptiveness to the concept of using taxes to pay for fire service, replacing private subscription fees. Citizens, once skeptical of the idea, have seen evidence of the stagnation brought on by years of spotty collections, especially from smaller, rural departments. They see those departments have been hindered from getting fire service up to the level county residents deserve.
Public comments during those recent meetings reveal a paradox. Some fire officials and residents from those rural communities - served by the Appling, Leah and Winfield volunteer fire departments - seem most skeptical, while most rural residents are all for the plan.
One Leah official huffed that theyd improve on their own terms, not the countys, ignoring the fact that they dont collect enough money from their often-reluctant subscribers to do so. Another rural resident erroneously claimed only Martinez residents would see a savings from the plan.
But the results of a straw poll on the Columbia County Republican Part ballot last August tell a different story. That poll showed strong support for a tax-based system that would work with the private departments. Voter approval for the idea was strongest - as high as nearly 96 percent approval - in the countys less-developed areas.
Conversely, voter support was weakest in the Martinez fire district - the area with the countys highest-rated fire department, whose officials are giving the strongest support for a tax-based system.
The only way to read those results, especially after the input at the recent series of meetings, is that citizens who most need better fire protection are more likely to support a plan that provides it. And some fire officials who have been unable to bring their areas protection up to the level their citizens expect are not ready to admit it.
None of this should be about turf-protection; its all about fire protection. County officials are on the right track in pursuing a solid plan to provide reliable funding that will make citizens safer.
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