Canton settles on funding for fire services
by Marcus E. Howard
mhoward@cherokeetribune.com
October 06, 2012 02:19 AM | 348 views | 0 0 comments | 3 3 recommendations | email to a friend | print
CANTON — After months of debate, changes in plans and political showmanship, Canton officials have reached a tentative agreement to fund needed fire service improvements.

At Thursday night’s Canton City Council work session, Councilman John Beresford announced that council members and Mayor Gene Hobgood were in agreement to fund the construction of three fire stations with a bond referendum in 2013. Beresford withdrew previously stated plans to hire a consultant Ross and Associates to find a funding solution.

“This agreement will move the project ahead so that we can start building the new fire stations,” said Beresford.

“At the council meeting on Oct. 18, I intend to recommend that the council approve a resolution to call for a bond referendum to raise funds for improving our fire service, including construction of the three, new fire stations. The referendum should be held at the earliest date possible in 2013.”

Hobgood, who has stood in opposition to what he described as unfair attempts to circumvent the senior homestead exemption, said the bond referendum is an “excellent start.”

“This does give us an opportunity and a methodology to build those stations and in building those stations, everyone will share in the cost,” said the mayor. “There’s no doubt about that.”

However, Councilman Bob Rush threw a bit of cold water on the exchanges of goodwill and praise among the mayor and council about the proposal.

He pointed out that the city is still paying the interest on an $8 million loan to finish the reservoir. A downside to the issuance of bonds to fund the fire service improvements is that they are limited to paying for the construction of the fire stations. The city would still need to come up with a way to finance operational costs, Rush said.

“I’ve always opposed a bond referendum for one primary reason and that is that the bond can only pay for the buildings and not the staff,” said Rush.

If $1.3 million is needed to staff the three fire stations, said Rush, the general millage rate would need to increase by 30 percent and the 176 seniors in the city who do pay property taxes would be charged $47.43 more a year. Other residents would have to pay $163.75 extra, he said.

“We still have to go with something like Ross and Associates to pay for the staffing of the fire department,” said Rush.

Councilman Hooky Huffman acknowledged that finding money for pay for personnel will have to be dealt with, but he said the construction of all three fire stations would not be paid for all at once. Four years would be the earliest the stations would be operating at the same time, he said.

Another advantage of using a bond referendum would be that the city would have 20 years to repay the bonds issued, Hobgood said. He also said the impact on residents’ tax bills would be less than if the city increased property taxes. Officials will have some time to figure out how to pay for operational costs, he said.

“This might come as kind of a surprise or maybe not. In some meetings, we just looked at the picture and said, ‘We can get bond money probably in the neighborhood of 3 percent, plus or minus,’” said Hoffman.

“I think that this was one of the deciding factors to where we all, the mayor and council, we all just kind of got together and said, ‘We’re for this project. The money will be there to build these when needed. The city will be able to prosper with a very low cost to residents.’”

Despite his doubts, Rush said he would support the bond referendum. Councilmen Bill Bryan and Jack Goodwin also expressed support for the idea.

The Canton City Council also:

* Decided to vote next meeting on whether to keep the fire district ordinance;

* Decided to explore changing the city’s business license administration fee from being based on gross receipts to an employee model;

* Decided to continue looking at changes to the city’s pension plan;

* Agreed to continue exploring the renaming of Northside Parkway, with Northside Hospital-Cherokee CEO Billy Hayes suggested as a possibility by two councilmen;

* Postponed approving City Manager Scott Wood’s designated acting city manager;

* Moved discussion of the Main Street Work Program to the November work session;

* Moved discussion of the T-Mobile tower attachment lease amendment to a later date:

* Heard a presentation of the proposed Homestead Option Sales Tax by Cherokee County Commissioner Harry Johnston.

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