In an article that appeared in the Feb. 20, 2013 edition of the Coastal Courier, the Liberty County commissioners blamed Midway for delaying the fire plan, but never addressed or discussed why the city opted out of the county fire plan.
This assertion went unchallenged, and I am disappointed that Midway Mayor Dr. Clemontine Washington, once again, could not take the time to respond in defense of the city that elected her.
The plan was developed by then-Liberty County Fire Coordinator James Ashdown. It called for paid firefighters to provide 12 hours of daytime coverage at the Gum Branch, Midway and Eastern District stations. The county still would rely on volunteers for overnight coverage. Funding would come from a new fire tax levied on residential, commercial and industrial properties, coupled with fire-inspection fees. The county would appropriate Midway’s insurance-franchise fees, which last year exceeded $100,000.
After the Midway City Council was briefed on the plan by Liberty County Administrator Joey Brown and Ashdown, I began to research the merits of the plan. I spoke with five Liberty County fire chiefs and learned they were not consulted on the plan. Four opposed the plan, saying it would make recruiting and retention of volunteers almost impossible. The fifth fire chief had never heard of the plan but, after learning the details, opposed it.
Gum Branch has a population of 271, and it is so small its area is measured in acres, not miles. Down the road, Walthourville and Allenhurst’s combined population is 5,012 — 19 times the population of Gum Branch. Yet, Gum Branch was to get paid firefighters?
Paid firefighters would get full pay and benefits, annual physicals, a $1,000 uniform allowance and will work only days.
When questioned about volunteer incentives, Brown said, “We’ll have to come up with something for them.”
And this plan was to stem the dwindling recruitment and volunteer retention?
In Liberty County, 17 percent of the population lives below the poverty line. In the east end, it rises to 23 percent. Based on this data, a question was raised. If these individuals could not pay the tax, would the fire companies fight the fire or let the home burn? The response was, “Someone will pay the tax for them.”
Perhaps they were unaware that families who cannot afford the fire tax usually cannot afford insurance.
Now, here’s something interesting. In that same Feb. 20, 2013 edition of the Courier, another article appeared. Here’s an excerpt from it: “Report: Georgia taxed poverty-stricken families. A new report names Georgia on a list of 18 states that taxed working poor families further into poverty last year.”
The residential tax amount will be determined after establishing how much commercial and industrial properties will pay. They had not begun to address these fees, so how could they ensure residential fees will be less than $100? Will industries be exempt as they are for other taxes? The county planned on a flat fee. Therefore, a $20,000 mobile home and a $1 million mansion will pay the same tax. Anyone think this is equitable?
The county stated that homeowners living within five miles of a paid-firefighter station could receive up to a $200 discount on their homeowner’s insurance premium. I spoke with insurance agents and learned that you also must also live within 1,000 feet of a fire hydrant. There are no hydrants in Gum Branch, and in Eastern District, only the Village at Sunbury has hydrants.
I am proud of the Midway City Council members who took a stand, but unless the city stands united, it will lose its fire station to the county.
Doyle is an independent conservative who lives in Midway and is dedicated to efficient, open and ethical government.