Leah Fire Department subscribers voted during a meeting Thursday to merge with fire and rescue units in Appling and Winfield.
The merger of the three fire departments into North Columbia Fire and Rescue, and the possible switch from subscription fees to a county-run tax-based system, were the main focus of the annual meeting between subscribers and Leah Fire Department board members.
By pooling resources of the three units, Leah fire officials said they hope to have enough funds to employ full-time firefighters in each district.
"All the time I hear people say that we're not a real fire department because we're only volunteers," Leah Fire Chief Charles Hogan said. "Well, I want paid people."
The three fire departments have been working together on the merger's details for months.
Board members assured subscribers that Leah would be fairly represented and that fire service wouldn't suffer if the departments merged. They said the new board would be composed of nine members - three from each district.
Leah fire officials also said that each department has about the same amount of debt and collects about the same amount of money, so subscription fees won't drastically change. It is a point that may soon be moot.
Columbia County recently completed a fire study, the primary suggestion of which was to institute a 1.62 millage rate for fire service collected by the county through property taxes. The county would then contract fire service with the existing departments and give the tax money collected in each district back to the fire department serving that district.
Commissioners could vote to approve the mill increase themselves, but Hogan said he believes they will put the matter to a countywide vote in March.
Hogan was adamant that the fire study was not a factor in the merger.
"Regardless of the county, we feel like the merger will make us stronger," he said. "The merger will let us set our own destiny."
Appling fire officials have signed off on the deal, and if Winfield subscribers approve the three-district union, the merger could happen as soon as next month or early February.
"The merger would only be official on paper," said Brice Reynolds, Leah's assistant fire chief and board president. "The new board will have to create new bylaws. We'll have to chose a new chief. There will be a lot more work that has to be done."
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