A mild tit-for-tat battle of letters to the editor took place recently on the pages of The Augusta Chronicle, with a former rural volunteer firefighter complaining about the county's current fire service, and the county's emergency services director defending their progress.
This squabble doesn't even need a referee. Hands down, the county's current fire service is a vast improvement over the previous status - and more improvements are coming.
Let's recap exactly where all this started. Just three years ago, Columbia County fire service was provided by a hodgepodge of professional and volunteer departments in Grovetown, Harlem and Martinez, and by volunteers in Appling, Leah and Winfield.
Except for the two cities' tax-supported departments, fire services were financed by unreliable, voluntarily paid fire subscription fees. The oldest and largest, Martinez Fire Department, collected enough revenue from its subscribers to thrive. But many residents in the zones of the smaller departments didn't pay at all. That created a vicious cycle: Fewer subscribers paying meant the departments couldn't improve, and lack of improvement failed to attract more paying subscribers.
The county's growth threatened to send that cycle to a breaking point, but in December 2005 commissioners jumped ahead of the curve and implemented a fire tax on all residents, and then contracted with the volunteer services to provide fire protection.
It's politically risky for local officials to hit citizens with a new tax. But in this case, the risk has more than paid off: Rather than what in some cases was fewer than half of the residents paying a subscription fee, close to 100 percent of taxpayers now fund better fire protection for everyone.
The county further streamlined the program by awarding all of the unincorporated territory to the renamed Columbia-Martinez Fire Rescue. That effectively dismantled the smaller volunteer departments, but they have been able to more than recoup their investments. Selling trucks and equipment has allowed the former firefighters to pay off all of their debts, and to establish a substantial scholarship fund with the extra money.
The more-reliable revenue from the fire tax, along with sales taxes and funds from voter-approved bonds, has allowed the county to aggressively expand fire protection in the rural areas of the county - something the smaller departments simply would not have been able to do with unreliable subscription funding.
The missing link is fire insurance ratings, which should be the final boost from all of the considerable work and expenditures in improving Columbia County's fire protection. Emergency Services Director Pam Tucker points out that once the final pieces of the improved service are in place, the county will request an insurance audit for the rural areas. If the fire rating improves as expected, homeowners should save money by seeing a long-awaited drop in their fire insurance cost.
Has the transition always been smooth? Of course not. No change this big, and this fast, is going to be glitch-free. But this is one of the biggest improvements in Columbia County in decades - and it deserves celebration.
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