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Liberty County mulls increasing fire coverage

A proposal for three 24-hour manned fire stations in Liberty County was presented to Liberty County Board of Commissioners on Thursday.

The proposal showed the startup budget, first-year operations and a trajectory over four years. The proposal recommended fire stations in the Holmestown-Joseph Miller Park area and Tradeport East, and turning the Gum Branch volunteer fire station into a manned station.

The stations would cover unincorporated areas of the county and Gum Branch. Stations would not respond to calls outside of their response area unless there is a request for mutual aid by another fire department.

While discussing having a fire station on the east side of the county, County Administrator Joey Brown said, “We think that station might potentially be in the east-end industrial park with a partnership of some of those industrial clients. They indicated a very serious want and need to have that in their industrial park.”

Brown, Assistant County Administrator Bob Sprinkel, county EMA Director Mike Hodges, EMA Deputy Director Larry Logan and county Chief Financial Officer Kim McGlothlin developed the proposal.

Construction for two fire stations — Tradeport East and Holmestown — is estimated to cost $2.9 million, salaries and benefits $1.4 million, and operational expenses total $248,500 for the first year.

Immediate equipment needs, such as an extractor, for fire stations were included in the proposal and would cost $145,000.

McGlothlin said the equipment needs must be met even if the proposed fire stations are not built.

The fire equipment needs are listed in the county’s capital improvement project list.

The total startup and first-year operations cost for the three fire stations is an estimated $4.7 million.

Fire operations are carried into the general fund budget, Brown said, and under the proposal that money would go into a separate fire fund.

How to pay?

The group explored two options to fund the operations of the fire stations — a fire fee or fire millage.

Brown said a fire fee is not reliable and talked about other counties encountering trouble with collections.

Sprinkel said counties would have the fees associated with parcel size, and residents found it to be unfair and not pay.

If the county decided to initiate a fire millage rate, only property owners in the fire stations’ response areas would pay the additional property tax.

“There are some things that aren’t being taxed. They’re shown on the digest, they’re shown as a value; those are places of worship, those are government-owned properties,” Brown said. “Under this (proposal), they would be taxed — there are no exemptions to the fire millage.”

The Board of Education, Industrial Authority, corporations and the county would also pay a fire tax, Brown said. Hodges said churches and schools use fire service the most for fire and medical calls.

The fire plan proposes around $5 million in revenue from sources that include a rate of 1.9 mills for unincorporated areas and Gum Branch, $2 million from the Special Purpose Local Options Sales Tax, if it passes in November, and a one-time contribution from industries at Tradeport East.

Brown said that without the one-time contribution and SPLOST, those funds will have to be generated from another source, and he does not think it is wise to impose a high fire tax.

The proposal’s subsequent years show an estimate revenue of over $800,000 a year collected from a fire tax and over $100,000 from an insurance premium tax.

Call data

The commissioners received last year’s call data from the county fire departments, excluding Hinesville. Out of the total calls (4,172), 54 percent were medical emergencies, fire 14.6 percent and rescue and service 8 percent.

Unanswered calls were 23.4 percent. Calls went unanswered because of the lack of volunteers, Brown said.

“Most of those (emergency calls) occurred during the daytime hours. Volunteers are simply not available to go,” he said.

Several items for consideration

The proposal and levying either a fire fee or fire tax were not approved or finalized at the meeting.

Brown said there are other factors that will affect building the fire stations, such as whether SPLOST passes, the tax digest and figuring out how to charge properties that are usually tax-exempt.

Logan said the main age category for people using ambulances are 50-to-69-year-olds.

“So what happens is — I don’t know if it’s going to be me or if it’s going to be you — whoever it is out there that doesn’t get their call answered, those are people we really need to be thinking about,” Logan said.

“If we really want to do these people justice in the community, whether we start small … we have a plan that will provide coverage for the people.”

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