It may seem flippant to refer to the upcoming deadline for a fire service agreement with Columbia County's two cities as a showdown at high noon.
Unfortunately, that's what it has become and it's not a comforting sight for a pocket of the county's citizens in governmental limbo.
Since December, Columbia County officials have moved aggressively to replace the county's patchwork fire protection. Their efforts followed years of study and a series of public meetings, all pointing to the need for change in how fire protection had been provided to the county's citizens.
Before this process started, citizens were protected by two municipal fire services, one professional private agency and three volunteer departments funded by subscriptions. The study and the hearings made two things clear: private subscriptions aren't a reliable source of funding; and, the old system failed to provide equitable fire protection in all parts of the county.
The first step by county officials was to set up a tax increase, with the funds dedicated to equitable fire protection in all areas. Then, the county began setting up contracts with the private fire departments, much as the county's ambulance service is provided under contract with a private company.
Martinez Fire Department, by far the county's largest, signed up right away. Appling, Winfield and Leah fire departments merged into North Columbia, pooling their resources and signing a contract to serve the western end of the county.
The toughest nut to crack, however, has been everything south of Interstate 20. Fire services inside Harlem and Grovetown are provided by city fire departments, which also provide fire protection to residents outside the cities. Those services are funded by a combination of city taxes and by subscription fees from residents outside the cities.
County officials originally planned to levy the fire tax on every property owner in the county, including those in the cities; city officials protested, believing they'd come out on the losing end if they were forced to cut city tax rates to match the county increase.
So the county decided to exempt city taxpayers and leave their protection to the city departments. The county planned to then contract with the cities to provide fire protection to residents in the unincorporated area south of I-20.
That plan has now hit a snag, too; city officials are balking at a noon Tuesday deadline to sign the contract, which they say violates an existing agreement delineating city/county services. If the cities refuse to sign, county officials say they will have the area protected by the North Columbia and Martinez fire departments.
Columbia County has made tremendous progress in improving fire protection for the 80 percent of the citizens who live north of I-20; they are obligated to see to it that the 20 percent of residents south of I-20 not only get that same level of service, but that those taxpayers get full accounting for their tax dollars.
City officials are seeking a meeting with the county as the deadline nears. That's good, but they need to quit getting bogged down in contract minutia and just get the best fire service possible in place. The way it's always been done just isn't good enough any more.
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