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Future of fire fees remains hot topic with commissioners
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Effingham County commissioners have several options in front of them when it comes to funding the county’s fire protection services.

The county’s fire department expenses are targeted at $2.24 million per year, but the service delivery agreements signed by the county and the cities change the way fire protection — and some other service — is funded.

"We’re trying to get some level of fire protection to everyone in the county," County Administrator David Crawley said. "(We) have a lot of area to cover. We cover a lot more square miles and do it a lower cost."

The current fire fees are $55 per year, and generate about $900,000 a year.

"Our fees are about one-third of what Chatham County’s are," said Commissioner Bob Brantley. "It is what it is, and we’ve got to pay for it somehow."

Crawley added there are plans in place to reduce the ISO across the county. The county may add three new fire stations — one on Hodgeville Road, another in Tusculum and one in Pineora.

One of the proposals brought to the commissioners called for a millage rate hike to 9.009. Because of the declining property tax digest, that millage is projected to bring in as much as revenue as the current millage.

Under another possible funding structure, the county would take proceeds from the insurance premium rebate and franchise fees to ameliorate the millage rate for the unincorporated areas of the county. In this plan, the millage rate would go up but the fire fee would be eliminated.

The difference in a tax bill for a 100,000 square foot house would be $103.50, according to county finance director Joanna Wright. But without a fire fee, the bill would be only $48 higher.

A third proposal called for no millage rate hike and no fire fee assessed.

Also proposed is a set of fire fees based on the number of floors in a home. The fee for one-story homes would be $70. It would be $90 for two-story homes and $120 for three-story homes. Rural businesses would be assessed $100, while mobile homes and apartments and duplexes would be charged $75 each as a fire fee.

By its most recent count, the county has 12,606 one-story homes in the unincorporated areas, along with 438 two-story homes and one three-story residence. There are 100 rural businesses, along with 4,538 mobile homes and six apartments and duplexes. The proposed fees also call for $200 per year for commercial structures and $1,000 a year for industrial buildings.

With those fees, the county expects to collect more than $1.77 million.

The county’s special services — which include fire protection, wastewater treatment plant, water and sewer operations, inspections and zoning, and senior citizens activities — carry an expense ofapproximately $6.7 million.

Commissioners would have to raise the millage by 4.57 mills to pay for those services with property tax proceeds.

"I will not vote for a tax increase, period," said Commissioner Vera Jones.

A proposed 75 cents per acre fire fee for tracts of 25 acres and more was not well-received by commissioners. That charge would bring in $164,000 per year.

"They shouldn’t be charged extra," Chairman Dusty Zeigler said. "They’re already being charged."

"It was brought to my attention that people said they were getting a free ride," Commissioner Steve Mason said. "I made the argument there is something called the timber tax. They feel like they are bearing a big part of the burden. It’s mostly timber people and farmers I’m hearing from."

Mason agreed that a tier system of fire fees should be enacted.