City councilmen Bob Rush and Hooky Huffman, both representatives of Canton’s northernmost district, hosted the event and fielded questions from the crowd of more than 50 residents who turned out to discuss the “fire bond,” as it is called.
The referendum would be a 20-year commitment for Canton, and proposes to construct up to three new fire stations in the city.
Huffman and Rush addressed attendees explaining the need for the new stations in Laurel Canyon, The Bluffs and near Northside Hospital Cherokee’s new location, with Laurel Canyon being the location of the first facility.
Huffman, who has said the bond is the cheapest way of providing prompt city fire services to Canton residents in these communities, came prepared to answer his opposition’s claim that it isn’t the least expensive option.
Rush said his reasoning for supporting the bond, which is set to have a 20-year term, was based on the fear of Canton receiving a split ISO rating.
A city’s ISO rating, Rush explained, is determined by how quickly (or slowly) the city’s fire department can respond to calls to their customers’ homes. This is often a factor in what rates homeowners pay in insurance, he said.
“If the ISO people give us a split rating, like the 5-9 rating they gave Jasper,” Rush said. “That’ll mean that anyone who lives outside a five-mile radius from the fire station in downtown Canton could be given an ISO rating of 9, which would cause homeowners insurance rates to cost a lot more.”
There is no guarantee, however, the councilman admitted, that Canton will receive a split rating. “It’s just a strong concern,” he said.
Rush also said that the $6 million number is merely the cap on the amount of money the bond could raise and that the cost of building the fire stations might not reach that high.
Several outspoken Canton residents expressed concern with trusting the City Council with $6 million and the task of building the new stations, citing the SPLOST 5, a now-ended sales tax increase which was written to set aside $2 million for public safety.
Their concern, however, Rush and Huffman assured, was misplaced.
“SPLOST 5 was supposed to collect $16 million in sales tax, with $2 million for public safety,” Rush said. “But it only collected $13 million, so the $2 million for public safety was actually never collected.”
Most dissenters in attendance, including former Cherokee County Commissioner Karen Bosch, tended to support the idea (or at least exploring the idea) of merging with the Cherokee County Fire Department, which also responds to all calls within the city of Canton.
This is part of a mutual aid agreement Cherokee County and Canton have struck in which county fire stations respond to calls in Canton and Canton’s fire stations respond to calls in certain areas of Cherokee County surrounding Canton.
Cherokee County Fire Chief Tim Prather said Tuesday the agreement works in the favor of both the city of Canton and Cherokee County.
“As it stands now, we help the city and they help us,” Prather said. “And that won’t change. I think Canton’s fire department is doing a great job with what they have to work with, but we have stations close to two of these proposed Canton stations, that need to be re-built. Seeing as how we have taxpayer money earmarked for that, to me, it doesn’t seem to make sense from the taxpayers’ perspective to pay the city for these new stations, when they’re paying the county to re-build stations nearby.”
“I don’t think people are going to care what the letters on the fire trucks say when they pull up to their house,” Prather added.
Mayor Gene Hobgood and the City Council have previously considered merging with the county, Huffman said. “But the county has only given us wandering generalities on the possibility on merging,” he said. “We haven’t gotten anything comprehensive. They can say they’ll do this or that, but we haven’t seen any firm offers.”
One Canton citizen, Daniel Casey, spoke out in opposition to the fire bond saying that he wasn’t sold that it’s the best option, since he didn’t think the councilmen had done all their homework.
“Don’t get me wrong,” Casey said. “These councilmen do a great job and a lot for the community. I’m just not sure they have totally explored all the options here.”
Casey added that he’d like to see a half-county, half-city committee formed to fully explore the option of a merger with the county.
The “fire bond” goes to a public vote on March 19. Since early voting on the issue began on Feb. 26, only 162 of the 12,956 registered voters in Canton have cast a ballot, said Janet Munda, Cherokee County Supervisor of Elections and Registration.
Canton Fire Department Chief Dean Floyd could not be reached for comment.