Residents in the North Columbia Fire and Rescue district voted at an emergency meeting Tuesday night to refuse transferring ownership of two properties used as North Columbia fire stations to Columbia County as part of a merger with Martinez-Columbia Fire Rescue.
Columbia County Commission agreed Tuesday night to terminate the county's two-year fire service agreement with North Columbia a year early and pay off more than $300,000 worth of department debt in exchange for 10 fully-equipped fire trucks, seven with liens, and the two properties at 6605 Washington Road in Leah and 6285 Cobbham Road in Winfield.
Pam Tucker, Columbia County's Emergency Services Division director, said that if the two properties in question were deeded to the county, they would be deeded to Martinez-Columbia to be used only as fire stations.
North Columbia district residents, who North Columbia Chief Tom McFarland said are the true owners of the department, voted down the idea of deeding the properties to the county earlier this month in lieu of leasing the properties to the county for the cost of property taxes.
"What we're asking them to do is that same courtesy, deed it over to us with the provision that it always be used as a fire station," Tucker said. "If it ever ceases to be used as a fire station, then it would revert back to the original owner. The purpose of doing that is that nobody has to pay taxes."
Tuesday night's vote was yet again a message from North Columbia residents reiterating they only want the two properties leased, not deeded to the county.
Tucker said using taxpayers' money to pay taxes is a sticky situation and if the county owns the property, taxes on the parcels would be waived.
McFarland said county officials proposed a counter-offer to have the properties deeded to them with the stipulation the properties would return to the people who donated them to the fire department if they ever ceased to be used as fire stations.
McFarland told residents the county wants to own the properties.
Residents and North Columbia firefighters balked at the idea, saying they are worried service will drop in the current North Columbia district. North Columbia currently employs three firefighters, who work 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., in each of its three districts -Winfield, Leah and Appling. If the two properties are transferred, the three full-time employees will be traded for a station in Phinizy, currently under construction behind the Eubank Blanchard Community Center, which will be staffed round-the-clock. .
"I'd like to make a motion that we continue like we did before, lease it to them for the cost," said North Columbia Division Chief Brice Reynolds, who also is a full-time Augusta-Richmond County firefighter. "If they (county officials) don't want to do any improvements, fine. If they want to bring a trailer up there, fine. And do it on a year-to-year basis to see how they operate and maybe next year when we have our general meeting, maybe we'll look into turning it over. But we need time to see what they are going to provide for the community ..."
Nearly all 35 residents at the meeting raised their hands in agreement.
Tucker said county officials are considering other locations for the stations.
"We're not just tied down to one option," Tucker said.
McFarland told citizens at the meeting that the equipment and trucks would be staying in the North Columbia District and staff for the stations would come as soon as budgets allow. Any qualified North Columbia volunteers, those with Firefighter I or 101 training, will be accepted as Martinez-Columbia volunteers.
"We can let this whole thing fall into a 'We don't like the way we are being treated' and get nothing done or we can look at the big picture and the big picture is we still want fire service here," McFarland said. "And that is what I'm trying to make sure we do. If we leave the equipment here so that if they do treat our volunteers right or they get more volunteers, they'll have something to fight the fires with."
Tucker stressed that fire protection will not decline with the merger and its accompanying changes at the first of the year, adding that it will only get better.
"People are going to get better fire coverage than they ever dreamed possible," Tucker said. "... When you put 24-hour-seven-a-week stations in an area that has been totally volunteer forever, you are going to beat response times 10 to one."
An amended proposal will be presented at a Dec. 19 Community and Emergency Services committee meeting, Tucker said: "People need to join and be a part of this and we want them to be a part of this and quit trying to work against us because it is not in the best interest of the citizens."
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