Pam Tucker says she's received a lot of questions lately from residents wondering which fire department is protecting their home and where their fire tax is going.
The Columbia County Fire District map shows the districts served by the four fire services providing fire protection under a county contract. (Click on the graphic for a larger image)
Tucker, Columbia County's emergency services director, said the many calls to her office have been spurred by recent changes in the county's fire service boundaries.
"The service areas have changed so much," Tucker said. "Look, we have drastically changed them. People just aren't sure. There's confusion out there."
The county recently finalized two-year contracts with the four fire departments in the county, so there should be no more changes in fire service for at least those two years.
In order to improve fire protection, the county took over management of fire service in January 2003 and began operation on Jan. 1 of three new county-owned fire stations in rural areas - one on Sugarcreek Drive near Grovetown, a second on Clary Cut Road near Harlem and a third on Old Louisville Road between Harlem and Grovetown.
Martinez-Columbia Fire and Rescue, which operates six stations already, took over operation of the Sugarcreek Drive location and response to all calls on the Interstate 20 corridor effective Jan. 1 as part of the contract.
Because no agreement could be reached with Harlem officials to staff the Clary Cut Road station, Martinez-Columbia also began operating it Feb. 1.
Martinez-Columbia serves 85 to 90 percent of the county's population and is contracted for nearly $4.4 million, not including an extra $65,079 of county money for operating costs, including utilities, fuel and insurance. The department provides round-the-clock coverage at the three county-owned stations, including a new headquarters station on DeSoto Drive.
"There must be a thousand little things that are involved in this,'' Tucker said. "It just sounds so simplistic from the outside. But all together, there is millions of dollars being spent, and generally people care about how the money is being spent. I think that's why a lot of people have been calling.''
North Columbia operates nine stations with three full-time firefighters and volunteers, covering the entire northwest end of the county for a $343,794 contract price. The county is building a new headquarters station for the department on Cobbham Road in Phinizy.
"There is this perception in North Columbia that the tax money is being used in other departments, but not in their area," Tucker said. "But there's just a whole lot of money being spent in the North Columbia (district). Per capita, North Columbia is probably getting more than Martinez. But when you look at the raw numbers, it doesn't appear that way.''
Tucker said the county recently used special purpose local option sales tax funds to purchase four pumper trucks and two tanker trucks for the department. Tax funds also provide $94,630 in operating costs, which includes maintenance for the department's entire fleet.
"We didn't have enough in the tax fund to pay for everything." Tucker said. "So some of the money is coming out of growth in the tax digest and the insurance tax premium fund.''
The Grovetown Department of Public Safety contracted for $100,000 for full-time firefighters to operate the Old Louisville Road station, which serves part of the former Harlem fire district between the two cities and an additional $600 per call district just south of Grovetown.
Each of the county's four departments get different funding because of the different services they can provide and the number of county-owned stations they operate. But all fire tax funds stay within the district they were collected, Tucker said.
The fire departments' contract prices and 2005 county-supplied operating costs are:
lMartinez-Columbia Fire and Rescue: Contract, $4,390,316; operating costs, $65,079.
lNorth Columbia Fire and Rescue: Contract, $343,794, operating costs, $94,630.
lGrovetown Department of Public Safety: Contract, $100,000 and an estimated $51,600 for the pay-per-call area; operating costs, $11,726.
lHarlem Department of Public Safety: Contract for an estimated $24,610 for the pay-per-call area only.
Tucker said the changes in fire service during the past two years might have been confusing, but service was improved countywide and will continue to get better. Before the change, fire service was provided on a subscription basis to those living in the unincorporated areas of the county. Officials had said not all residents were paying their subscription fee and that a tax-based collection system would bring in more funding while also cutting the cost of fire service to most residents.
"In two years time, we have come a long way," Tucker said, adding that she also has received questions as to why Martinez-Columbia and North Columbia have not merged into one big county-run department. "We're trying to do this methodically. We certainly are working with those departments. God bless them. If they had not been out there all these years, especially in North Columbia, they wouldn't have had any fire protection. We need to work with them, too, and with their needs.''
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