CANTON — The Canton mayor opened his town hall meeting Thursday by advising that likely no more than 40 minutes would be spent discussing how to remedy the city’s issues with fire services, but a solid two hours later the issue was still hot on the lips of the crowd of about 50 residents and city officials.
For several months now, debate has torn through Canton over how to — and who should — solve the city’s issue of having only two fire stations. Some suggest a merger with Cherokee County’s fire department to better serve the city. Others call for Canton to go it alone, even if it means higher taxes.
Before turning the floor over to residents Thursday night, Mayor Gene Hobgood told those in attendance at the town hall meeting that he and the members of the City Council wanted to hear from them on how they would like to see the fire services issue handled.
“I hope you do keep in mind that it’s not for the mayor and council to tell you,” Hobgood said. “It’s for you to tell us what you want and what your thoughts are.”
They weren’t bashful.
Clay Howie, a Canton resident and member of the newly-appointed Commission on Canton’s Future, was first to speak.
“I would like to ask why it’s an option to consolidate the Canton Fire Department with county fire services,” Howie said. “How would that be beneficial to me at all?”
Councilman Glens Cummins, the most outspoken member of the Council on considering that option, answered.
“If (we) were consolidated under the county, it would be 3.394 mills in order to provide four fire stations to this city,” Cummins said of the millage rate residents would pay for fire services if the county built two additional Canton stations. “If the city is to provide those same two fire stations operated in the same manner, it is going to cost at least 6 mills. So a benefit to you is your property taxes will be lower.”
Hobgood echoed Cummins statements on the costs being lower with the county.
“From a purely economic standpoint” he said, “the cost would be far less through a merger-type arrangement as opposed to us going in alone and building those stations.”
John Rust, the chair of the Commission on Canton’s Future, spoke out in favor of the potential merger with Cherokee County fire services, but said multiple options should be explored.
“Let’s look at the options. The option to float a bond for $6 million is defeated,” Rust said of the voter-defeated Fire Bond Referendum to fund three new Canton stations. “But there’s one option out there — and that’s merging — let’s put it on the table along with three or four other options and determine which one is the best. Let’s be open-minded, guys.”
One Canton resident, Harry Cooper, went one step further and recommended consolidating the entire Canton government with that of the county.
“It looks like we’re heading down the road of merging,” he said. “So why don’t we just merge? Do away with this expensive city manager, do away with the city council (and) have a unified government. I love (Canton). My wife’ll tell ya I love it. But I just hate us fighting over just a city having to have this and have that. We don’t need to have all our own stuff.”
Councilman Hooky Huffman addressed the costs in overhauling Canton fire services, saying that in looking over the city’s recent ISO rating review, he noted that the fire department is understaffed, though he praised the department for what’s it’s done with the resources available.
Huffman said no matter how Canton solves its fire services issues, more staff for the fire department will be hired.
“It’s staff that’s going to put out fires, not brick and mortar,” Huffman said. “So we’re going to (add staff) one way or the other, and if it costs millage — which it probably will — we’re going to do it.”
Huffman said Canton has gone four years without an increase in the millage rate charged to property owners, while most other municipalities around have remained revenue- neutral.
“We’ve been living good,” he said. “But now the pain is going to have to be beared. We’re going to have to have an increase.”
Pat Tanner, a former Canton councilwoman, said the costs of expanding the Canton Fire Department were OK with her.
“I’m retired ... and I live on a fixed income,” Tanner said. “But I am willing to do my fair share to keep the city of Canton fire services within (Canton) and controlled by the Canton City Council. I want us to have our own fire department.”
Councilman Bill Bryan said the costs of Canton handling its fire services issues are just part of living in a city, and it’s worth it.
“Why do we have a city in the first place,” Bryan asked. “It costs more to live here. The county can do everything that the city can do, every single thing. Why have (the city)?”
No one answered.
“It is for premium services. We have our special events downtown, we have our identity,” he said. “You can’t put a pencil on it; it’s an identity.”
Tanner agreed with Rust’s sentiment that all should keep an open mind, particularly those on the City Council, who she and several other residents said have so far not been open-minded on the issue.
“We do need to come together as a council,” she said. “Hidden and personal agendas need to be thrown aside. We need to come together as a city.”
Hobgood said he and members of the City Council didn’t simply decide how they felt about Canton fire services, but took their time to determine their positions.
Bryan agreed that he and his fellow elected officials did their homework.
“We have seven independent-thinking people that do have their own opinions, that do their research and that do — believe it or not — listen to the people.”
The quietest Council member during the meeting was John Beresford, who is usually among the most outspoken and is known for not being afraid to address controversial issues.
“I came here with a notepad to take notes,” Beresford said just before the meeting ended. “I came here to listen. Excellent input. If I didn’t get up and say something right at this moment, I know for a fact that I would’ve been accused of ducking and dodging. So I just wanted to say, thank you for coming. Thank you for your input. It was more for you, not the Council, to have this.”