This has been a tumultuous year for Columbia County's fire services. Just look at the past few months:
After five years of slow debate, county commissioners swiftly moved to pay for fire services through a property tax hike rather that watch the county's privately operated fire departments continue to struggle to collect subscriptions.
The Appling, Winfield and Leah fire departments made the extraordinarily forward-thinking move of combining into North Columbia Fire and Rescue. The merged service will soon hire its first firefighters and open a new headquarters station.
After a bumpy series of negotiations, Harlem and Grovetown fire services are on board with the countywide plan, and will continue to provide fire service to unincorporated areas outside the cities, paid through the county's fire tax.
Harlem is combining its police and fire departments into a public safety agency. "The goal is to elevate the level of service to our citizens, as high as we can get it," says Jerry Baldwin, the former police chief appointed as director of public safety. Grovetown's combined departments are a good role model, having operated smoothly for years.
The Martinez Fire Department, the largest in the county, will soon hold a dedication ceremony for its new headquarters station. More than just a big, modern building, the station is a symbol of the county's great leap forward in improving the safety of its citizens.
And all of this happened without nasty public fights -- just good, clean debate and lots of work.
"The transition from totally private fire departments to county-contracted fire departments was smooth due to the high level of communication between the county and fire departments, as well as outstanding cooperation from the fire departments," says Pam Tucker, the county's Emergency Services director who was a central figure in the negotiations. "The costs of operating the fire departments is now equally distributed through property taxes and there are no more fire subscription fees, which in many cases were not paid."
There are still negatives, as there will be in any transition this big. Property owners could get a case of "sticker shock" later this year when they see tax bills with the 1.62 mill increase. Residents who until now paid no fire fees, choosing instead to freeload off the system, will be forced to pay a fire tax, as will large landowners who previously weren't charged for open land.
Additionally, watchdogs both in and outside the fire service will need to keep a close eye on funding to make sure the money flowing in from the new tax makes its way back out in the form of fire protection, rather than swirling down the bureaucratic drain.
In the end, though, citizens will be able to look back on 2004 as the year Columbia County officials and fire-service professionals and volunteers joined hands to improve the safety and security of all citizens -- and they did so in a businesslike manner that some of our neighboring counties could certainly learn from.
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