Despite budget woes, Liberty County still is planning a transition to a paid countywide fire service that would be funded by a combination of service fees and insurance-premium taxes.
The city of Midway, however, is not on board with the service, and it’s slowing the process.
Fees would be established on a tiered structure for residential, commercial and industrial properties. County Administrator Joey Brown said the proposed numbers would call for everyone in the unincorporated areas and within Midway city limits to pay an annual fee not to exceed $100.
Last year, the board decided to address Midway City Council to gauge its willingness to participate before taking the matter up with residents.
“We wrestled with that for a period of 12 months where we appeared before the city of Midway, where we appeared before city-council meetings and did things several, several times and explained things and answered their questions,” Brown said. “And then we finally got a letter back in December when we set a timeline on it, for them to say ‘No, we’re not interested.’”
Now, other options include selecting a different station location than the Midway station and revisiting the topic with the city.
Without using Midway’s residential and industrial fee base, the operations would receive less money and would, therefore, have to be toned down, Brown said.
“The fire plan — the reason it picked Midway is because it’s mid-way; it is the central location for running to assist Riceboro, running to assist Eastern District, running to assist Fleming, running to wherever. It’s an ideal location,” Brown said.
Stations included in the staffing proposal are the Midway station, the east-end fire station in Sunbury, and the Gum Branch station.
District 4 Commissioner Pat Bowen asked if the county service would respond to fires within the city.
“The fire authority owns the equipment that’s in Midway station. So would you have to? No, you would not have to respond to fires in the city limits of Midway,” Brown said. “You could say, ‘That’s fine, Midway, we’re going to build our own … you take care of what you’ve got.’”
But, Brown added, under mutual-aid agreements, the county still would have some obligation to respond.
Brown, Bowen and fire coordinator James Ashdown discussed the legal grey area between what is mutual aid, emergency aid and a service for which the county can charge.
Another option would be for the county to construct a station near the existing volunteer station in Midway and respond to calls excluding those within the city. But the commissioners acknowledged they could be taken to task for such a move.
“The big winners (in the initial plan) were going to be the city people and the city of Midway,” Brown said. “They sit within five miles of that station; they have a water supply. I mean, what we were talking about was putting a $95 assessment on their people inside their city and, in return, probably getting at least a $200 insurance premium break, or better.”
To reiterate the need for a paid service, Ashdown said a dwindling volunteer force combined with heightened training requirements and fewer local training opportunities have compounded to make fire protection a harder service to provide.
“We’re down to like five or six volunteers per station that are actually certified to do anything,” Ashdown said.
Meanwhile, calls for fire services still are increasing. He presented a five-year look at calls dispatched, during which the number has jumped from 2,355 in 2007 to 4,167 in 2011.
“The calls for service are on a steady incline, while the percentage of calls being answered is on the decline,” he said, adding that about 40 percent of calls go unanswered.
The proposal calls for 20 total full-time firefighters, who would staff the stations 12 hours per day seven days a week. The county still would rely on volunteers overnight.
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.
Commissioners Gary Gilliard and Justin Frasier volunteered to engage Midway Mayor Dr. Clemontine Washington, council members and Midway residents to see if they could make progress on the issue.