An impassioned plea from a commercial property owner may have spurred Springfield City Council members to re-think a proposed fire fee.
Pete Lancaster, who owns three buildings in downtown Springfield, including the more than 100-year-old Mingledorff building, urged council members to take another look at their fire fee proposal. Council members were considering raising the fire fees to $55 for residential structures and to $235 for commercial buildings.
“I’m very upset about it,” Lancaster said. “I just don’t think it’s fair. I can’t afford that kind of fee.”
Lancaster said his fire fee would be the same as that for the shopping center where Harvey’s is located and for the new Enmark station, both properties that have a greater value than his three buildings on Laurel Street.
“I’m trying to help downtown Springfield,” he said. “I’ve got two buildings worth less than $100,000, and you’re going to charge them the same as you charge me? It’s not fair. I don’t think it’s fair to charge the little fella the same as you charge the big one.”
City Manager Brett Bennett agreed that the proposal is not a perfect solution to fund the city’s fire protection.
“There were issues with every approach council looked at,” he said.
Said Lancaster: “It’s about as far from perfect as it can get.”
The city’s fire fee proposal was similar to the one adopted by Effingham County, and Bennett said the city needed to do something to make the fire fees more equitable. Lancaster suggested basing the fire fee on the value of the property. He said he had to reduce the rent on one of his buildings in order for a tenant to remain in it.
“I’ve done my best to revitalize downtown Springfield,” Lancaster said, “and I think I’m getting slapped in the face.”
Mayor Barton Alderman opposed a fee structure based on the square footage of a building, and other council members supported his stance.
“I fought that battle in Rincon with business licenses,” said Charles Hinely.
“We looked at several plans with square footage, and it was unwieldy,” added Kenny Usher.
Hinely also said he supported Lancaster’s position.
“We don’t need to be killing businesses,” he said.
Under the service delivery agreement ratified by the county and the three municipalities, Springfield has to come up with $115,000 for its fire department, and Usher said the only other option may be to get it out of the general fund — meaning an increase in millage rates.
“Nobody has gone into this just wanting to raise fees,” he said. “It’s been agonizing.”
Usher’s motion to adopt the fire fees as proposed failed after Alderman broke a 2-2 tie and voted against the proposal.
At a fire fee of $235 a year, the average per month for a business would be $18.75.
“We need to fund the fire department,” said council member Steve Shealy. “I understand that can be a big constraint. We looked at five or six options. We felt this was the best we saw. We chose what we thought was best.”
Shealy also pointed out that the shopping center has a sprinkler system for its buildings. “That puts significantly less of a burden on our department if it’s sprinklered,” Bennett said.
Bennett added they need to look at the fee structure with property owners who are affected by the proposed hike and come up with a solution.
“I’d like to look at it some more,” said council member Gary Weitman. “We’ve spent all this money to revitalize downtown and if we lose a business, it’s going to hurt us.”