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County ponders how to pay for fire coverage
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As Effingham County commissioners ponder how to improve fire protection and coverage in parts of the county where it is lacking, they also have to figure out how to pay for it.

The proposed fiscal year 2015 budget includes additional personnel for the county fire department, and an arson investigator who will be split with the sheriff’s office. The fire department’s budget, which falls under the county’s special funds and not its general fund, is projected to grow from $2.31 million to $2.63 million for the approaching fiscal year. With the additional personnel, that portion of the fire department’s budget is scheduled to increase by nearly $200,000.

“Fire budget is something we have to have a conversation on,” interim county administrator Toss Allen said to commissioners.

Allen said the county is in talks with Guyton about operating the Springfield-Tusculum station, and there have been discussions about bringing in a consultant for ISO ratings. The request for proposal has been written, Allen said.

“We are waiting to put that out,” he said.

Bringing in an ISO consultant, someone who will recommend the best ways to lower ISO ratings, will have a price tag, Allen cautioned.

“They are going to recommend buildings, apparatus and personnel,” he said. “I don’t know how much. The consultant may tell us to buy things we have no way to fund.”

The county upped its residential fire fee from $55 to $80 last year and to completely cover the fire department’s budget, Allen said it would have to go to $175 a year. The break-even number last year on the fire fees, said Chairman Wendall Kessler, was $157.

“Do we raise fire fees to produce the benefit, or do we add benefit to justify the fire fees? It’s a very fair question,” Allen said.

Kessler supported raising the fire fees, which last year generated approximately $1.2 million, and floated a proposal to hike the levy to $125.

“I’m a fee-driven person,” the chairman said, “and I have no problem going up with the fee as long as we can show what we’re spending the money for.”

Allen said there are special purpose local option sales tax proceeds for buildings and apparatus. In the SPLOST equipment category, there is more than $1.1 million allotted for two new fire engines and a fire tanker. Under the SPLOST buildings, a five-year budget that runs to FY 2018, there is more than $1.64 million pegged for fire stations, including those at Ladessie Zeigler, Courthouse, Hodgeville and Tusculum roads.

Commissioner Steve Mason said he could make the argument for increased fire fees if he could show residents how much on their fire insurance they could save annually.

“The problem I have is the cost we have in the rural areas,” he said. “There are areas where we have big, big gaps of coverage.”

One idea that was floated was charging the fire fees based on the quality of service and coverage provided.

“I would like to get us to a fee schedule where if we get their ISO to a 4, they pay for a higher fee than someone who has an 8,” Kessler said. “It’s not equitable, in my opinion.”

Allen acknowledged there will be fringes where the ISO is a 10.

“There are multiple ways to skin this cat,” he said.

Commissioners also mulled the financial support for the hospital, which is obligated to receive $3.6 million a year or 2 mills of property tax, whichever is greater. The hospital currently receives 1.997 mills and at that rate, it will collect more than $3.6 million. Commissioners appeared to support capping the amount at $3.6 million.

“Why would we not?” asked Vera Jones.

Kessler said it’s his understanding of the contract between the county and the hospital, as part of its modernization and expansion, that if the millage rate doesn’t bring in enough revenue, the county has to make up the difference out of its general fund. He said the hospital is allowed to ask for additional money, above the $3.6 million it is guaranteed to cover indigent care.

“It’s an interesting contract,” Kessler said. “I don’t know how it got through this board, personally.”