City officials at odds over fire service funding
by Marcus E. Howard
mhoward@cherokeetribune.com
September 14, 2012 12:00 AM | 2013 views | 0 0 comments | 5 5 recommendations | email to a friend | print
CANTON — Canton officials were at odds Thursday afternoon over how to fund a 5- to 10-year fire services plan for the city during a Fire Services Committee at Canton City Hall that grew increasingly heated.

Officials estimated that it would cost a total of $3.7 million to fund the proposed improvements to fire services, including the construction of three new fire stations, plus an additional $1.3 million in operational costs. However, heated arguments broke out over just how to pay for it.

Mayor Gene Hobgood, who sat in on the committee meeting, made it known at the outset when asked his thoughts that he believed the improvements should be funded fairly among all residents.

“If it’s a tax, a fee or whatever, it needs to be one that is equitably to everyone,” he said.

“I think also we need to determine how do we collect that fee or tax. I would hope it wouldn’t be like our stormwater (fee) which is not equitably, in fact. If you’ve got a whole subdivision of houses or rental houses, as soon as someone moves out we don’t get stormwater. But the rainwater keeps coming down and runoff is still there,” Hobgood said.

Despite the mayor’s concerns, committee members Chairman Glen Cummins, Councilman John Beresford and Councilman Hooky Huffman did discuss the idea of modeling funding after the stormwater fee.

Beresford and Huffman seemed unconvinced with Hobgood’s reasoning, who is also against a water bill solution because it might not cover everyone.

“We have within our grasp a very, very reasonable fee that would be put into the water bill and be part of how we collect that fee,” said Beresford, who is taking the lead in the fire services issue.

But Cummins said the problem with that way of funding is that a fee is supposed to be for services rendered.

“I think you’re going to have a hard time convincing a lot of people that a service rendered to somebody in one size house versus another size house is any different,” he said.

Last week, the city was forced to find an alternative way to fund the fire district plan following a decision by the Georgia Attorney General Office that interpreted a proposed district millage rate as a tax rather than a fee, which means the city’s senior homestead exemption would apply.

Beresford said every citizen should pay for fire services and that he thought attempts by some to ensure equitability in funding and implementing an all-encompassing fee was “splitting hairs” and “bordered on being ridiculous.” Huffman, who said there will always be “exceptions,” shared the sentiment.

“I don’t operate off of one or two people worried about running or doing something,” Beresford as his voice began to rise in the library room. “You can scream and holler all you want.”

At that point, Councilman Bob Rush – who sat in on the meeting with City Manager Scott Wood and Fire Chief Dean Floyd – decided it was a good time to leave and did so.

Soon after, Cummins decided to adjourn the meeting. He said the next meeting, which has yet to be scheduled, would continue the funding discussion.

Committee members seemed to be in agreement before the breakdown in the meeting that the district plan should move forward with building the three fire stations along Highway 140/Reinhardt College Parkway near the Great Sky/Laurel Canyon neighborhoods, along Commerce Boulevard and in the Bluffs at Technology Park.

Design details were introduced by Beresford and Floyd, who said that adding certain things such as a training station would help the city in raising its ISO system rating. The ratings, based on a 1 to 10 scale, are used to calculate homeowners’ insurance costs.

Raising the current ISO 4 to a 3 would take about eight years at the earliest, officials said.

The city is also looking at increasing the number of firefighters from the current 20 to 36 as part of the fire services plan.
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