The Liberty County Board of Commissioners identified fire protection as its No. 1 priority for the current year during a retreat Friday.
University of Georgia Fanning Institute Assistant Director Langford D. Holbrook facilitated the retreat, which was held Thursday evening and Friday morning at MidCoast Regional Airport. The event gave commissioners and administrators a chance to assess their progress in 2011 and identify issues for the current year.
On Friday morning, county fire coordinator James Ashdown presented a proposal that would transition some of the county’s current volunteer fire stations into county-run stations staffed by paid employees.
County Administrator Joey Brown said a committee composed of himself, Ashdown and commissioners Connie Thrift and Marion Stevens Sr. came up with the proposal to assess the growing need for fire protection.
The number of service calls has increased each year since 2007, according to an overview of the plan. In 2011, there were 4,167 calls dispatched, and in 2010 there were 3,291.
Increased industrial facilities and residential structures, loss of volunteers, reduction in state-offered training programs and rural area schools are among the factors that raise concern for the current volunteer-based system, Ashdown said.
Volunteer firefighter participation has decreased during the same time. The county had 126 volunteer firefighters at one time, but now has about 86, Ashdown said.
"There are several things that impact that — we really don’t have an incentive program for the volunteers …," he said, adding the economy also is a factor.
Though only in its early stages, Ashdown proposed a plan that would consolidate the municipal volunteer fire departments of cities that elect to participate in a county-run fire district with paid staff.
In brief, the plan includes:
• Promoting the county fire services administrative assistant to full-time status
• Changing Ashdown’s title from fire coordinator to fire chief; Ashdown said he would not require transition to a full-time position or any increase in pay, though he could take on the responsibility if needed
• National Fire Protection Agency standards compliance with wellness programs, yearly physicals, gear maintenance and counseling
• Staffing 20 full-time paid firefighters and four part-time firefighters at three stations for 12 hours each day, seven days per week
Under Ashdown’s plan, station staffing costs would run $809,314.72 per year, and annual administration salaries would be $88,211.18. The plan also would require $337,852 in operational expenses.
Stations included in the staffing plan are the Midway station, the east-end fire station in Sunbury, and the $782,000 west-end station slated to open in April.
While the county owns the west-end station, Brown said the Sunbury station captain has voiced verbal commitment to the change. Ashdown will present the plan Monday to the Midway City Council.
The plan calls for a combination of four possible funding sources: fire fees, insurance premium tax funds, false-alarm charges and fines for building-inspection infractions.
The first is a county fire fee added to the property-tax bills of those served by participating stations. Residential fees would be capped at $100 per year, business at $250, and industrial facilities would be placed on a scale according to their risk categories.
Insurance premium tax already is a source of revenue for county fire operations, Brown said. Other sources, which need further analysis, include false-alarm charges similar to the ones Hinesville had in place and fees from building-inspection infractions.
Another component to the plan would require municipal participation. For example, in Midway the county and city both would fund the station staff, which would operate out of the current Midway facility. One way for the city to generate revenue would be to enact its own fire fee.
Commissioner Pat Bowen addressed two concerns in response to the plan: ensuring the volunteers who respond to calls are given a financial incentive to continue and hesitation to ask taxpayers for any more money.
Commissioner Donald Lovette echoed that concern, asking, "How would you sell this to ‘Mr. and Mrs. Taxpayer’?"
"I would say the ability to know that somebody is going to be there, no matter what time of the day or night that you call for fire or you call for a first responder, somebody is going to get there to you," Brown said. He added that they cannot use the potential homeowners’ insurance savings as a "selling point" because the savings are not guaranteed.
The plan will go before Midway City Council, and the committee will look further into the false-alarm and building-inspection fines.
The board agreed to give other governments 45 days to review the plan before eliciting public input.
With consent of outside parties, the county would like to put the plan in place before the end of the calendar year.
Commissioners Gary Gilliard and Eddie Walden were not present Friday.
Read more on the retreat and the BoC’s other priorities in Wednesday’s Courier.