The Liberty County commissioners devoted much of their planning session Monday to professional fire protection countywide.
The plan would be funded by a fire protection fee to be assessed on tax bills and the fees would be according to 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 a fire protection fee of $920. Officials said the average fire fee would be about $138 annually.
The commissioners’ timeline shows professional fire protection operations starting in the first quarter of 2019 and that is when payments are expected to begin coming in. The commissioners and other officials will start preparing immediately, including passing an ordinance next month.
No votes were taken at Monday’s informal meeting, but the commissioners were clearly in favor of implementing the plan.
When Commissioner Gary Gilliard said, “I’m ready,” Commissioner Connie Thrift chimed in, “I was ready a year ago.”
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.”
There is $2 million in Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax funds for fire protection and in addition to the projected fire fee collection, commissioners are considering tapping the income from the insurance premium tax.
County Administrator Joey Brown said commissioners should be cautious about channeling money from the general fund reserve to other uses.
Liberty County Emergency Management Agency Director Mike Hodges gave commissioners information on the status of fire protection and on the plan for professional firefighting. According to the report during 2016 there were 3,871 calls to fire departments. This does not include calls in Hinesville which has its own fire fees and a professional department.
Of the 3,871 calls, Hodges said 1,042 got no response from the primary fire department. Many of these calls were to Midway’s volunteer fire department, which received 1,166 calls during the 12 months. Of these calls, 503 got no response, more than 43 percent of Midway’s total.
Reports showed that the Eastern District Fire Department got 567 calls but did not respond to 203 of them.
The county plan calls for an end to contracts with Midway and Eastern District and the county proposes to remove its fire and rescue equipment from Eastern District.
Contracts will be renegotiated with the Riceboro and Walthourville. Those departments are needed to complete coverage and the county plans to pay them a per-call fee when they respond to fires, officials said.
Volunteer fire departments that received equipment funded by SPLOST will keep the equipment and provide maintenance on it.
Hodges said that under the plan, “Jurisdictions will no longer matter,” and when there is a fire call someone will always respond. Volunteers will play an important part supplementing paid firefighter, he said.
“We are not casting a stone at our volunteers, they are great.”
Fire protection is not on the commission’s agenda for Thursday but is expected to be scheduled for a vote in March.