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County, cities seem far apart on fire plan

POSTED: September 30, 2017 4:02 p.m.
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Liberty County is trying to expand its fire service into a full-time professional firefighting department.

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Countywide professional fire and emergency service seemed like an idea whose time had come when the Liberty County commissioners discussed it at an annual planning session in February. But it didn’t seem that way in a Thursday meeting with mayors and city officials.

Gail Evans, a member of Flemington’s city council, expressed a common opinion when she said participating in the county plan would be asking citizens to accept an unknown — the not-yet-established county fire department — in place of the existing fire protection Flemington has through a contract with Hinesville.

Walthourville officials expressed similar views. They have a mixed professional/volunteer fire department and one said the county should simply give Walthourville the money allocated for fire protection.

The county plan calls for a 25-man professional fire department to provide 24-hour, seven-day-a-week fire protection from three stations. The new Gum Branch station will serve the western part of the county and a station will be built in East Liberty for that area. Fire services will be headquartered at a new station to be built at Joseph Miller Park on U.S. Highway 84 near Midway.

There is $2 million in special purpose local option sales tax funds for fire protection and commissioners are studying a fire protection fee similar to the solid waste fee being paid now.

The plan, outlined in February, would be funded by the fire protection fee to be assessed on tax bills. Fees would be based on the value of the property protected. For property valued at $50,000 the fee would be $46 per year and property valued at $1 million would be assessed $920. Officials said the average fee would be about $138 annually. Fees based on square footage and land use are being considered.

When County Commission Chairman Donald Lovette asked the assembled officials, “Who’s in?” Hinesville Mayor Allen Brown was among the first to answer. “Everybody needs to be in now to get to the next step.” Hinesville has its own professional fire department.

When one official said Hinesville has the most to lose in establishing county-wide fire protection, Commissioner Justin Frasier said, “They have the most to share,” and Brown agreed.

Riceboro Mayor Pro Tempore Tommie Williams asked for a report showing the downside of the fire plan. Riceboro and Walthourville would continue to get county contracts to provide fire protection under the new plan. The county will end its contracts with the Midway and Eastern District fire departments.

County Administrator Joey Brown said the county has been working on fire services for six years. At the February session Commissioner Marion Stevens said, “I’ve been on this board for 19 years and we’ve been looking at this for 19 years. Let’s not waste any more time.”

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