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No change in county fire fees for now
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After more discussion and public input, Effingham County commissioners have opted not to change the fire fees — for now.

In a 5-1 vote, commissioners decided to keep the fees at their current level. The current fire fee structure assesses $55 a year for homes, $250 annually for commercial buildings and industries with 25 or fewer employees and $2,000 for industrial buildings with 26 or more employees.

"We listened to everybody’s comments and tried to address what we can," said County Administrator David Crawley. "We recently passed a resolution on sanitation fees, and we’ve been trying to come to a conclusion on fire fees. We want to give people an idea of what their potential tax bill is going to be."

Commissioners had been given a proposal that called for a $65 annual fee on single-story homes and an $80 a year fee on two-story homes. Three-story homes would be charged $110 a year.

The proposal also called for a base fee of $200 on commercial structures and 3 cents per foot on every square foot beyond 1,000 square feet.

Crawley said the idea was to approve recommended fire fees now, so property owners would have an idea of what their potential tax bill will be when assessments are mailed this month.

The proposal also called for a $65 annual fee for churches, but commissioners were cool to the idea. County finance director Joanna Wright said about 38 churches would come under that fee, though that number could be higher.

"I’m not in favor of charging churches," said Commissioner Vera Jones.

Said Commissioner Steve Mason: "The problem with the (fee on) churches is there has never been a fee at all on a church, ever."

Citizens who spoke during the commissioners’ meeting Tuesday also asked the board not to adopt a fire fee on churches.

"We would ask the board reconsider the resolution," said David Thaxton of the International Worship Center. "It’s not so much the amount of the fee that concerns us. It’s the fee in general that concerns us. Calling it a fee, we believe, doesn’t eliminate the fact it’s a tax on a church."

Business owner Ashley Kieffer, who owns storage units, voiced his opposition to the fees on commercial structures.

"If we put the $200 fee on commercial (structures), we’re going to drive the nail into the coffin on our small businesses," he said. "We’re fighting enough right now. It’s not fair to be penalizing commercial. Please vote fairly."

But Crawley pointed out the current fire fee on commercial structures under 1,000 square feet is $250 a year. The proposed fee is $200.

"We feel we have lowered commercial and industrial, and we’re generating enough revenue for us to get by," Crawley said.

Both Crawley and county finance director Joanna Wright said they were trying to structure the fire fees so that the county would not have to adopt a special millage rate for a special tax district and also find a way to address the county’s water-sewer debt service.

"We feel we can meet with our budgetary requirements for the special service district," Crawley said.

The fire department’s personnel budget shrank from $1.3 million in fiscal year 2011 to $1.21 million. Its overall budget was $2.24 million for FY12, up from $2.1 million in FY11. The difference in fire fee revenues and expenditures is expected to be made up from a combination of insurance premium rollbacks, payments in lieu of taxes and franchise fees.

"We feel this is the best alternative, at this time," Crawley said.

Charlie Kea asked commissioners to reject the fire fee proposal and find another method of funding fire services aside from more fees.

"I think you need to go through the hard process of making a budget and not take the easy way out of finding a new tax," he said.

Jones said the use of fire fees was needed to cover the cost of fire protection without using general fund revenues.

"We can’t continue to expand the fire service if we’re not going to raise fees," she said.

Earlier versions of the fire fee recommendations called for a fee on government and school buildings. Those assessments were removed from Tuesday’s presentation.

"At this time we do not propose a fee for government or school buildings," Crawley said. "That is essentially taking money from one pocket and putting it into another."

Chairman Dusty Zeigler proposed that the county, once the fire budget is set, look at total square footage and align the fees according to the share of square footage occupied by residential, commercial and industrial space.

"Whatever the percentage for residential is, the residences pay that share accordingly," he said. "Commercial, industrial, even churches and schools, I believe they should pay, too. Once you have that budget, you could set that fee."

Fire fees likely will be finalized after commissioners adopt a budget. The current fiscal year ends June 30.