The discussion about countywide fire services continued between county and city leaders last week, with a plan for the change still unclear.
The work session Thursday at the Columbia CountyGovernment Center Auditorium was meant to be an update on the fire master plan, which outlines fire service in the county using funds from the recently approved fire tax. It quickly digressed into another battle between the two groups over fire protection inside the county's incorporated areas.
"We may have a heated work session," Columbia County Board of Commissioners Chairman Ron Cross said shortly after the meeting was called to order. "I hope we don't resort to throwing things."
Words were the only things lobbed between city officials and county commissioners as they stuck to reoccurring topics such as double taxation and the possible exclusion of the Harlem and Grovetown from county-funded fire service.
Harlem City Councilman John Thigpen told commissioners he could not support a city millage rate increase of 1.62 mills, the same amount the county proposed to charge landowners for fire service.
"We don't want to depend on the county to fund our fire services," he said.
County Commissioner Steve Brown responded, saying the commission isn't asking the cities to rollback their millage rate by 1.62 mills. They want the cities to only rollback the portion of their millage rate that goes toward fire service, which is 0.6 percent for Harlem and 0.47 percent for Grovetown, according to figures discussed at the work session.
Thigpen was more receptive to that recommendation and said he would speak to Harlem's council about the issue.
Cross said Thigpen's efforts may not matter, because both city mayors have told him they would not support a tax increase of any kind.
In a letter sent to Cross last week by Harlem Mayor Scott Dean and Grovetown Mayor Dennis Trudeau, city leaders proposed that the commission pass a resolution excluding them from the millage increase and, consequently, county funds for fire service.
If the resolution were to pass, Harlem's and Grovetown's fire departments could lose their fire districts and be relegated to servicing residents inside their respective city limits.
If that were to happen, the county could create a new fire department to serve those districts, or divide them between the Martinez Fire Department and the newly created North Columbia Fire and Rescue.
The legality of a resolution to exclude the cities was questioned at first by county representatives, but County Attorney Doug Batchelor said a resolution is legal.
Officials will meet at 11 a.m. today at Savannah Rapids Pavilion for their quarterly county-cities meeting. Fire service is expected to be one of the topics of discussion.
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