About 60 people turned out Wednesday for the Midway City Council’s forum on rescue and fire protection and the general tone of comments did not support a countywide plan that includes a proposed fee.
Several ideas emerged as residents of Midway and the unincorporated area of Liberty County asked questions and made suggestions. An unidentified Midway man said he paid his taxes and expected fire protection to be provided without any added payments.
County Administrator Joey Brown, Public Safety Director Mike Hodges and County Fire Chief Brian Darby presented the countywide fire protection proposal, as they have been doing for several months. Brown pointed out that although the commissioners have been working on the plan for eight years, the current document is a draft that can be adjusted. He said the county commission had not adopted the proposal.
Brown said he would take Wednesday’s input and check on revising the plan, possibly using more than nine fee tiers or linking the plan more closely to tax assessments. People who meet the age and income requirements for the exemptions managed by tax officials could also be exempted from fire fee payments.
Brown said that some jurisdictions simply fund fire and rescue operations out of their general fund, raising the millage enough to cover this. “There’s a huge revenue loss from doing it that way,” Brown said, “It’s cheaper to do a fee than to tax.” As examples he cited schools, churches and industries connected with the Liberty County Development Authority. They need fire protection but they are tax exempt.
The fire plan aims to provide 24/7 coverage throughout the county with professional full time firefighters. It would be financed by Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax funds, money from the county’s insurance premium tax and – most controversially – a fee to go on residents’ tax bills.
Several people said that if Midway needed fire protection the city government should provide it; if necessary by forming a professional fulltime Midway Fire Department.
Midway and other areas have been served by volunteer firefighters but there has been a slow decline in the viability of volunteer fire protection. Fewer people are volunteering and in places like Liberty County many volunteers are employed outside the county and some hold jobs that they cannot leave for fire calls. Volunteers remain an important part of fire protection and incentives will be offered to them.
The county has hired temporary firefighters to provide coverage from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m., the time when most volunteers are unable to respond to fire calls.
Midway Fire Chief Terrell Chipp, Sr., has said he has about 15 volunteer firefighters who are well trained but cannot respond to calls when they are at work. This is a national trend for volunteer firefighters, officials said.
The fire and rescue plan being studied has nine tiers and would charge each tier different annual amounts. The proposed fees range from $40 for mobile homes to $15,000 for improved industrial structures of more than 100,000 square feet. Suggestions Wednesday included adding more tiers or changing the fee for each tier.
One county resident had a handwritten plan showing that if mobile home residents were charged $100 instead of $40 the cost for commercial and industrial parcels could be reduced.
One business owner said that for the money he would have to pay for fire protection he could insure his business for more than $1 million and “if there was a fire, just let it burn.”
Several owners of commercial and residential rental properties said they could not afford the proposed fees.
The $40 annual fire fee for mobile homes is the lowest and its 1,627 parcels are projected to raise $65,080. The largest number of parcels are residential properties of less than 2,000 square feet. These 3,829 parcels would bring in $574,350.
There are 1,670 residential parcels of more than 2,000 square feet and their $250 annual fire fees should bring in $414,500.
Churches and charitable organizations would be assessed at $350; there are 66 of them expected to produce $23,100.
Commercial property less than 4,000 square feet would be assessed a fire and rescue fee of $4,500; the 122 properties in this tier would bring in $549,000.
Tier 6 of the nine-tiered fee plan is commercial buildings between 4,001 square feet and 20,000 square feet; 63 of these properties are expected to produce $409,500.
The largest commercial structures, more than 20,000 square feet, would be charged $8,500; $102,000 is expected from 63 of these buildings
Industrial improvements of less than 100,000 square feet would be assessed $10,000; there are 11 of these producing expected revenue of $110,000.
The largest industries, 100,000 square feet or larger, would be assessed $15,000 each. There are only two of these in the Midway, Gum Branch and unincorporated area; $30,000 in revenue could be produced.
Midway Mayor Levern Clancy Jr. said the city council would take all comments into consideration and that the public would be informed before the city took any action.
Parker can be contacted by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.