Fire fees across the unincorporated portions of Effingham County are going up, while sanitation fees will remain level.
County commissioners, in conjunction with adopting the fiscal year 2014 budget Tuesday night, approved a higher residential fire fee and decided to keep sanitation fees at the current level of $200 per year. The new fire fees will be $80 for residences, up from $55 per year.
“We’re faced with either having to go up on property taxes or do something with fire fees,” said Chairman Wendall Kessler.
The hike in fire fees, based on approximately 15,000 homes in the unincorporated area, will raise $375,000 in additional revenue. The county fire department’s budget for fiscal year 2014 is $2.3 million, and the residential fire fees will bring $881,000, at $80 per year.
Commercial fire fees will remain at $250 a year, and industrial fire fees will remain at $250 for industries with 25 or fewer employees and $2,000 a year for industries with at least 26 employees.
In order for the county’s fire budget to be covered completely by fees, the assessment would have to be $155 per home, according to finance director Joanna Wright.
Mack Thompson, a former county commissioner, complained that the residential fire fees are excessive.
“The fire department is spending more money than they’ve got,” he said. “Now they’re trying to get it from the citizens. If you build stations, you’ve got to have equipment. I know you’ve got to have a fire department. I just can’t see how you want to keep adding the burden to the citizens. You keep spending you don’t have.
“When’s it going to stop?”
Thompson also criticized the location of the Goshen Road Public Safety Complex.
“It should have never went there,” he said. “Why did they build a big old, glamorous fire department right there?”
Commissioner Forrest Floyd said that location had been already agreed to but also questioned why it was built there, and commissioners Vera Jones and Phil Kieffer added they opposed that location.
Part of the service delivery agreement was to place more stations within five road miles of the most residences possible in an effort to lower the ISO ratings. Lower ISO ratings mean lower fire insurance premiums.
“The argument is, do the citizens want us to increase the level of fire service in the county so they can recover their money in lower insurance premiums because of better ISO ratings,” Commissioner Steve Mason said. “Or do we do nothing and have high insurance premiums? People want more services. This is the direction they want us to go. That is fairly clear.”
The fire department has a full-time firefighter on a 24-hour basis at five stations. The department has 24 paid employees, with 21 full-time, and a volunteer pool of 66.
County Fire Chief Jack Burnsed told commissioners the department isn’t getting the volunteers it once did.
“A lot of them are having to take two or three jobs to support their families,” he said. “They’re not able to spend the time with the department like they used to.”
The county has an ISO rating of 4/8B. Homes within five miles of a station in the county fire district and within 1,000 feet of a water source have a class rating of 4, and homes outside the 1,000-foot radius of a water source but within five miles of a station get an 8B rating.
The county also agreed to build two new fire stations, as part of the service delivery agreement, at Hodgeville and Pineora. That also will mean nine additional employees, temporary county administrator Toss Allen said. The personnel have to be in place in order to get credit from the ISO.
“Whatever we do at this juncture, we’re going to come back and have this discussion in the future,” Allen said. “The commitment to build these stations has been made.”
Under the service delivery agreements with the cities, signed last year, the county can use insurance rebate proceeds, payments in lieu of tax and franchise fees for the unincorporated area’s services.
Floyd pointed out that Bloomingdale’s fire fee is $144, and it’s $240 in Bryan County, Kessler added.
“We believe these rates to be comparable to other rates within our surrounding counties,” Wright said.
Kessler said he is an advocate of paying fees rather than taxes, and he figures he has saved $800 a year in insurance on his properties.
“Any time there is more money coming out of the population, it is not popular,” Kessler said. “I don’t think anyone wants to go up on property taxes. But we’ve got to have money to operate a fire department, and I think the taxpayers get more of a benefit in a reduction of their premiums than what they are paying to get that reduction. I see it as a net gain to our citizens.”
Mason said he does not like the idea of raising the fire fee. “But the money has to come from somewhere,” he said. “We’re going to have to raise the millage.”
Kessler added he proposed a $100 a year fire fee and believes the fire fee eventually will have to be raised to cover the department’s costs.
“I don’t see a way to avoid it,” he said.
Mason said the commissioners have been trying to shift the cost of the fire department out of the general fund and to the fire fees over time.
“I think what the citizens want to know is we’re doing everything we can do to obtain other (revenue) and reduce unnecessary costs,” Jones said.
Thompson also was critical of the county’s sanitation fee.
“Recycling was supposed to cut down on trash and bring those fees,” he said. “The recycling is not helping. We were told at the time that recycling was going to help bring trash fees down.”
Without the recycling program, Kessler said, the prices charged to the county for its sanitation service would go up.
“So recycling is helping to keep prices down,” he said.
Mason said the county’s cost for the tonnage of garbage generated has gone down.
“We have been able to not have an increase,” he said. “Hopefully, this is a bargaining chip with the company when the contract comes up again to renegotiate a price.”
The county began single-stream recycling two years ago, and Mason acknowledged that he was a skeptic of the recycling program at its inception. Now, he’s a proponent.
“I didn’t know if people were going to join in on this,” he said.
Thompson also pointed out problems, which the commissioners also acceded to, with the recycling points rewards program.
“From the time they come pick it up, if you don’t call to get your points, you don’t get it,” Thompson said. “I know people who tried it and got so aggravated with it, they quit it.
Mason said that will be brought up with Republic Waste, the county’s sanitation provider.