Harlem and Grovetown leaders said they are growing more skeptical of signing on with Columbia County's plan to oversee countywide fire service.
Both city administrations recently were advised by their city attorneys and Susan Pruett, general counsel of the Georgia Municipal Association, not to sign the interim fire service contract because it violates state House Bill 489, which prevents duplication of service and double taxation.
The cities were warned that signing the contract to provide fire service to the fire districts they currently serve would nullify all of their rights under the bill, violate the current fire service contract and transfer control of fire service to the county.
"We have serious reservations about this contract," Grovetown Mayor Dennis Trudeau said at a called city council meeting Thursday.
Trudeau and Harlem Mayor Scott Dean met with Columbia County Board of Commissioners Chairman Ron Cross and County Administrator Steve Szablewski on Thursday morning to discuss the contract.
"It was put to us that they were prepared to take over if we were not prepared to agree," Dean said at specially called Harlem City Council meeting Friday on the topic.
Pruett and Harlem's attorney, state Rep. Barry Fleming, are drafting their own copy of the contract to submit to county officials because Dean said the county's contract serves the county's private departments, not city-run ones.
City officials said they also feel pressured to sign the agreement or they would be forced to serve only inside their city limits.
"Some commissioners are saying you handle inside the city limits, and they will handle the unincorporated areas, which may be the way it ends up after it's all done," Trudeau said. "It would be embarrassing for a truck from Martinez to come through our city to go to a residence just on the other side of town."
Martinez Fire Department officials are ready to sign the agreement pending its approval by the Board of Commissioners, Chief Doug Cooper said at a meeting Jan. 27 where copies of the county's Fire Master Plan was distributed.
At the meeting, county leaders passed out copies of the plan, which addresses capital, staffing, operational, contractual and other needs through 2010.
Szablewski took the time to address concerns that have been expressed by the city leaders, including the financial workings of the collection of funds through property taxes.
The county Board of Commissioners has approved a raise in the millage rate earmarked for fire service, but will not decide how much until August, when the 2004 tax digest comes in.
Despite Trudeau's reservations about losing House Bill 489 protection by signing the proposed contract, he listened intently as Szablewski presented specific examples of how each dollar collected will be returned to the district it was collected.
Double-taxing city residents for the same service is what concerns city leaders, however.
Rolling back city millage rates equivalent to the countywide rise will prevent double-taxing city residents for fire service, Szablewski said.
"The taxes would go down in the cities, but up in the county," Szablewski said.
Despite lingering concerns, Trudeau said he would read the master plan with an open mind and probably will go along with a plan that is best for both city and county residents.
The county requested any comments from fire service providers be submitted to Pam Tucker, Emergency Services Director, by Friday. The comments and plan will be formally presented at a specially called meeting Feb. 12.
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