About 50 residents who live south of the city limits of Harlem gathered for a town hall-style meeting Dec. 19 and expressed their outrage at the county for the end of a fire service contract with the city.
Currently, fire protection for the unincorporated area of Columbia County south of the city is handled by the Harlem Department of Public Safety on a pay-per-call basis. On Saturday, Harlem's pay-per-call fire service agreement with the county will end and the city will no longer provide fire service outside its city limits.
Many at the meeting, held at New Hope Baptist Church, said the fire service issue showed county commissioners did not care about their safety and that a slow response to a serious fire might result in the loss of lives and property.
"The protection I wanted y'all to have they pulled off the agenda," Columbia County Commissioner Lee Anderson said, referring to a lump-sum payment to Harlem for fire service.
Anderson said he was told by Columbia County Commission Chairman Ron Cross that there were not enough votes to approve a lump-sum payment to Harlem to provide fire service. Harlem Mayor Scott Dean told the crowd his city is willing to provide the service, but could not afford to provide it on a pay-per-call basis.
Dean said his office received an offer from the county Dec. 8 that included three options: a lump sum payment of approximately $38,000, $2,200 pay-per-call, or provide no fire service.
"On Dec. 12 the lump sum was gone," Dean said. "I can only do what my council is willing to do. I twisted arms to get pay-per-call for this current year.
"Whether you get calls or whether you don't get calls, there is still a cost associated with providing fire stations, with providing people, trucks and all the maintenance that goes with it."
Anderson said he was forced to vote in favor of the Martinez-Columbia Fire Rescue taking over fire service because not doing so would leave the unincorporated areas without protection.
"If a fire takes place out to Dearing Highway or Wrens Highway the fire truck has got to come (from the county's station) right past the city fire truck sitting in its bay to get to the fire on the south side or west side of Harlem," said state Rep. Barry Fleming, R-Harlem, who also is Harlem's city attorney.
"To me that's unacceptable and it should be unacceptable to us as a community."
Beginning at 7 a.m. Saturday, fire service will be provided by Martinez-Columbia Fire Rescue to all unincorporated areas in the county with the exception of a small area outside Grovetown that the city will handle on a pay-per-call basis.
Columbia County commissioners voted Tuesday to approve the construction of fire stations on White Road south of Harlem, on Columbia Road near the county detention center in Appling, on Winfield Road and at either Wildwood Park or the Clarks Hill Water Plant.
The goal is to have prefabricated sheds for the fire stations ready by Saturday, said Pam Tucker, the county's emergency services director. But a concrete pad and site preparation must be completed before the station can be constructed, which could delay stations from opening, she said.
"(The White Road) station will be a staffed station and it will be staffed during peak times," Tucker said. The station will be staffed with two firefighters and a pumper truck and supplemented by volunteer firefighters, she said.
Buck Storey, a Harlem resident, said between the fire service issue and consolidation, the county government is doing more harm than good.
"The commissioners are trying to split this county up," Storey said. "They are trying to drive a wedge right through this county."
Citizens were encouraged by New Hope's pastor, the Rev. Anthony Booker, and the assembled officials to call Cross. Anderson said he would try to set up a meeting between residents and the chairman soon.
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