During its Thursday work session, the council voted to use roughly $80,000 in contingency funds to hire, train and fully equip two additional firefighters for the city.
Councilman Hooky Huffman, who had been lobbying the council to hire two firefighters for the past month, said now was the time for the city to act.
He referenced last month’s fire at Canterbury Ridge Apartments during his discussion.
Huffman said five city firefighters were among the first responders to the scene and said he felt five were not enough to go into a burning building to rescue residents. The point, he said, was that the city was “grossly understaffed” in its fire department and with summer months upon the city, Huffman said the city could see more fires.
Since it was a work session, the city had to make the item on the agenda an “emergency” item for the council to consider its approval.
“As far as I’m concerned, it’s an emergency,” Huffman said.
The discussion on fire services continued during the council’s meeting on Thursday.
During the meeting, Mayor Gene Hobgood presented numbers to demonstrate how much Canton residents would pay in property taxes if the city considered three options to enhance fire protection.
Hobgood said he only presented the numbers to inform the council and the public of the potential costs.
“I just wanted to lay it out there,” he said of the presentation.
The city now uses 2.88 of its 6.8 mills for fire services, which costs about $230 for a homeowner with a $200,000 home.
If the city built one new fire station, the city would have to add 1.88 mills to its current 2.88 mills used for fire services, bringing the rate to 4.76. That would mean the homeowner of a $200,000 home would pay $380 in property taxes.
If the city built two new fire stations, it would add an additional 3.75 mills, bringing its total millage rate for fire services to 6.63 mills. That would cost about $530 for a taxpayer owning a home valued at $200,000.
If the city consolidates with Cherokee County, which Hobgood said would result in two new fire stations, two ambulances housed in the city and the city having firefighters trained as emergency medical technicians, the city would only pay the county’s fire district tax of 3.129 mills.
That would cost the average homeowner with a $200,000 home about $250 in taxes, just $20 more than what residents pay now. However, that would also mean the city’s senior citizens receiving a homestead exemption would also have to pay $250 for the fire tax.
Councilman Bob Rush said the city could consider other options such as implementing its own fire district tax. Councilman Bill Bryan agreed, and said it was good that everyone in the city pays its fair share for fire services.
Councilman John Beresford said Hobgood’s document was good to have, but pointed out his only issue was the level of service the city would get if it consolidated with the county.
“We’ll have a reduced level of service with Cherokee County,” he said.
Earlier this year, Canton began exploring ways to shore up its fire protection with the establishment of a committee tasked with reviewing several options on the table, including building up to three fire stations or merging its operations with the county.
However, last month the committee returned with a recommendation to maintain its ISO rating of 4, which would include the city introducing routine testing of its fire truck pumpers, performing load testing on its ladders and using a secondary method of communicating, such as pagers, with on-duty and off-duty firefighters. That option, a recommendation issued by a consultant, would keep the city’s Insurance Service Office, or ISO, rating at 4.
The ISO system is used to rate how well fire departments serve their area. The scale runs from one to 10, with one being the best fire service. The ratings are used to calculate homeowners’ insurance costs.
City and county leaders have met in the last several months to review what could be done to make consolidation a viable option.
A Service Delivery Strategy, adopted in 2009 by the Cherokee County Board of Commissioners and municipalities, includes a fire services agreement that would allow the county to work with the city to jointly build a fire station.
That agreement stipulates both entities building a new station near Laurel Canyon, replacing the county’s North Canton station on Highway 140/Reinhardt College Parkway, and another near Commerce Boulevard, replacing Cherokee’s Hickory Flat station on Highway 140/Hickory Flat Highway east of Interstate 575.