By allowing ads to appear on this site, you support the local businesses who, in turn, support great journalism.
County commissioners debate increasing share of fire department costs
Placeholder Image
    Bulloch County Commissioners are undecided regarding a proposal from the City of Statesboro to pay for 43 percent of the Statesboro Fire Department budget. City officials said the current percentage paid for providing  fire protection to citizens living with a five-mile radius of the city limits - 25 percent - is no longer sufficient.
    However, county leaders are exploring their options before signing on the dotted line, said Bulloch County Manager Tom Couch.
    Fire district issues were a major topic of discussion Tuesday during a workshop that addresses several issues. Couch, commissioners and several department heads discussed economic development, revenue issues, and water-sewer issues as well.
    Citizens in that fire district currently pay 1.4 mills in taxes, which the county then pays the city to make up 25 percent of its fire department budget, Couch said. But City of Statesboro leaders want the amount increased to 43 percent, and want the increase in the millage rate - to 1.9 mills - phased in over the next five years.
    The benefit of citizens having this fire protection by the Statesboro Fire Department translates into lower insurance costs due to a lower ISO rating. As the population in the five-mile radius area outside the city limits has grown, "The City of Statesboro feels there is an inequity in funding," Couch said.
    If the county agrees to paying 43 percent of the city's fire budget, costs will almost double - "from between $450,000 to $500,000 a year, to about $900,000 a year," he said.
    And with a recent revaluation and tax increase, county leaders are unwilling to ask for yet another increase from some citizens, he said. "There is no way we're going to increase that millage this year."
    Couch said city leaders will have to make things clear to citizens about why the increase is necessary. "We need a joint responsibility with transparency between the city and the county."
    Bulloch County Public Safety Director Ted Wynn, who supervises the county's fire departments including the Statesboro Fire Department, reminded those in the meeting that increasing taxes within the fire district is not fair to land owners who have property without structures.
A new county fire depaartment?
    The group also discussed other possibilities, including forming a county fire department with paid firefighters to respond to the citizens outside the Statesboro city limits, as well as other areas, in addition to the current volunteer fire departments.
    Bulloch County is also currently going through an ISO study, and "I think we ought to discuss" the options, he said.
    The money paid to the city for fire services could fund a new county fore department, he said.
    Couch commented on the city "trying to integrate rescue services into the fire department."
    Bulloch County EMS Director Lee Eckles said his department still responds to rescue efforts along with the city, mainly due to to city rescue personnel being new to the service. The EMS rescue unit lends experience while the city rescue unit gets on its feet, he said. "The dynamics change when you have bleeding, screaming people."
    Wynn said the issue facing county leaders is deciding whether to have the county fund a percentage for the Statesboro Fire Department budget or to fund a higher level of fire protection in the county.
    Wynn lives within the five-mile radius fire district. "I am not dissatisfied with the services of the Statesboro Fire Department," he said. "But we have to look at the needs of all the citizens in Bulloch County."
    "Can we do it cheaper for the benefit of the people?" Couch asked."I just want to make sure if we sign t his agreement it's fair to everyone. The bottom line is ... like any consumer, we want to be sure we're getting what we pay for."
    All details should be worked out before county leaders sign anything, he said.
    Commissioner Roy  Thompson, responding to a comment about EMS serving the city without compensation, asked how many calls to which EMS responds are within the Statesboro city limits.
    "About 78 percent of our total volume is inside the five-mile radius fire district," Eckles said.
    Couch reminded commissioners that through House Bill 489, the county agreed to provide Statesboro and other municipalities with EMS service free of charge "to avoid double taxation."
    More discussion is needed, and more information should be gathered before any decision, Wynn said. "We need to take our ISO ratings and meet, and meet again ... until we're ready," he said.
    "I don't think that's asking too much," Couch said. "We'll get our ISO studies, and tell the city ... we're looking at the problem,  and we're not signing ... until the chips are on the table."
Sign up for the Herald's free e-newsletter