Effingham County commissioners are expected Tuesday to discuss fire fees for the upcoming fiscal year, after their last discussion also delved into the massive water-sewer debt the county faces.
The county staff asked for a new fire fee schedule in order to get those anticipated charges on property tax bills to be sent out next month. A new fire fee structure based on land size was proposed, with a fee of 75 cents per acre for tracts of 25 acres or more.
Most tracts of less than 25 acres have a residence on them and pay a residential fee, County Administrator David Crawley pointed out. The larger tracts are mostly in the hands of timber companies, according to Crawley.
“The concept was a fee for vacant land,” he said.
More than one-fifth of the calls the fire department responds to involve brush fires, Crawley said. County Fire Chief Val Ashcraft said most of the brush fire calls are on smaller tracts.
“But the larger acreages can be more severe and more long-lasting,” he said.
In fighting a brush fire, county fire crews can burn as much as 100 gallons of diesel fuel, Ashcraft pointed out.
County staff also has proposed a new fire fee structure for homes, based on the number of floors in the house.
“The residential (side) has been covering the cost of fire fighting on the large tracts,” Crawley said. “We’re trying to be fair. What you have now is a system that is not fair.”
Commissioners, however, were cool to the idea of the fees for larger tracts.
“I feel like they are paying for a service they are not using,” said Commissioner Steve Mason.
County staff proposed a schedule of fees per story of a house, with $75 per year for one-story homes, $90 for two-story homes and $120 per year for three-story houses. Currently, the residential fire fee in the unincorporated portions of the county is $55 per year.
Crawley said the county is not covering its fire budget through the fees charged and has been using proceeds from the insurance premium tax rebate to supplement the fire department’s budget. The fee schedule proposed at the last meeting was designed to make fire coverage self-sufficient.
The fire department’s budget is nearly $2.3 million per year. The insurance premium rollback is around $1.5 million per year, and about $100,000 goes to fund senior citizens programs in the county. Currently, fire fees bring in about $900,000 a year.
Should a new fee schedule be enacted that covers the fire budget, Crawley said the insurance premium proceeds could be directed toward other county needs, such as the water and sewer debt. Crawley estimated that $1 million of the insurance premium tax rebate could go to alleviate water-sewer financing.
Zeigler was not inclined to remove the insurance premium proceeds from fire department financing.
“There’s no reason to tax people extra to pay for water and sewer,” he said.
The county’s current debt load for its utility infrastructure stands at nearly $28 million in loans from the Georgia Environmental Financing Authority. Zeigler said defaulting on the loans was an option for the commissioners.
“GEFA is not going to come eat us,” he said. “They are not going to come eat the dirt. I think it’s more morally correct than to keep taxing people who don’t use the service.”
Commissioner Vera Jones said defaulting on the loans was not an option, and county finance director Joanna Wright said the contracts stipulate the debts will be repaid with the full faith and credit of the county.
The county’s interest payments on its outstanding debt are approximately $200,000 a month.
“We do have a large water and sewer debt,” said Jones, “and we do not have a viable way to pay for it. We can’t keep kicking that can down the road. We’re going to come to a day where we have no money.”