Though it's probably more of a feature of Christmases past, there will still be plenty of kids waking up Christmas morning with a shiny toy fire truck under the tree.
One year ago, Columbia County officials worked out a deal that has turned out to be one of the best Christmas presents ever for local citizens - involving shiny real fire trucks.
Dec. 31 is the first anniversary of the agreement that consolidated the unincorporated portions of the county's fire service under one fire department. After expanding to cover the areas formerly served by three all-volunteer departments, the renamed Martinez-Columbia Fire Rescue now serves all of the county outside Harlem and Grovetown.
"It has gone very well," says Pam Tucker, the county's emergency services director. "I could not be more happy."
Sure, there were well-chronicled growing pains with the changeover - which volunteers in those now-defunct small departments referred to as a "hostile takeover."
The sting was especially tough for North Columbia Fire and Rescue, formed from the former Appling, Leah and Winfield fire departments. North Columbia officials had already worked hard to set up that coalition department, and felt somewhat blindsided when the county decided to put all its fire service eggs in Martinez-Columbia's basket.
But the good news from North Columbia's former chief, Tom McFarland, is that the department was able to sell most of its equipment, pay off its debt and leave a small surplus. Losing the contract didn't leave anyone holding the bag.
The fire department consolidation, which has also resulted in a boom of new fire stations across the rural areas of the county, is just part of the story. The rest is the act that enabled the new service: the county's creation of a fire tax that replaced the former voluntary subscriber fees.
Martinez-Columbia is still a private organization, but rather than relying on unpredictable subscriptions to fund the operation, a portion of local taxes goes specifically to pay Martinez-Columbia to provide fire service. It's a win for taxpayers, who generally pay less in taxes than they did in fire fees, and can deduct the tax from their federal income tax. It's a win for Martinez-Columbia, which no longer has to fund its operation with voluntary fees.
Most of all, it's a win for the county. Fire service is now provided by full-time professional firefighters in every area of Columbia County 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
County commissioners are in New York this week, getting rates set on the bonds recently approved by voters. A significant amount of the public safety portion of those bonds will fund new equipment and land for fire service, so the improvements aren't over yet.
There are still plenty of things needed to get the fire service in top shape, especially regarding coordination of protection for pockets of land around Harlem.
But the shiny new fire truck under the tree has been a great gift for the county's citizens, and it's good to know they'll continue to receive it every year.
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