Proposed “rooftop” fire fee for Perry on the back burner

bpurser@macon.comAugust 19, 2013 

perryfire

Firefighters from Perry and Warner Robins pour water from at least five trucks onto a June 2008 blaze that apparently started when lightning struck the Chapman Accounting firm at the corner of Ball and Carroll Streets in Perry.

BEAU CABELL — The Telegraph

WARNER ROBINS -- A “rooftop” fire fee proposed in part to raise revenues to hire additional Perry firefighters has been placed on the back burner, officials say.

The proposal calls for an annual flat fee to be charged for fire service for all structures, including churches, school properties and other generally tax-exempt buildings, Mayor Jimmy Faircloth said.

The amount of the fee has not been determined, but it would vary depending on whether a structure is residential, commercial or industrial.

The measure is sought to bring down the city’s Insurance Services Office fire protection rating used to determine insurance costs, Fire Chief Joel Gray said.

The ISO rating is 5/9 for the area covered by the main fire station at 1207 Washington St., Gray said. The 5 applies to properties within a five-mile radius of the station and the 9 applies to all other properties in the station’s coverage area. The rating for the areas covered by the city’s new station at 105 Commodore Road is a 10. The ISO ratings range from 1 to 10, with 1 being best.

The city spent about $150,000 to upgrade fire hydrants with expectations of lowering the higher ISO rating in the downtown area. About $5,000 was also spent to add ISO recommended equipment to fire trucks. The city also addressed the need for a second station, with the new $1.2 million Davis Farms Fire Station becoming operational this year.

However, the chief issue identified by ISO remains a lack of manpower, Gray said. To meet the ISO staffing recommendation, the city would need to hire 21 additional firefighters. The city currently has 18 firefighters, he said.

The elephant in the room

The mayor and council agree that property taxes should not be raised to fund additional manpower, Faircloth said. Officials had hoped the tax digest, which was not in when council members looked at the city’s funding plan this year, might offer additional revenues. However, revenues from property taxes ended up being down slightly from last year.

Faircloth had again raised the fire fee proposal.

“To me, it’s still a fair thing to do,” Faircloth said.

By charging a flat fee, similar to the city’s storm water drainage fee, everyone who receives fire services shares in the cost, Faircloth said.

“We’re asking everyone to pull their weight,” he said.

The chief advantage is insurance rates go down as the ISO ratings go down, he said.

A disadvantage for those who itemize their income taxes is that a fire fee would not be tax deductible, Faircloth said. Also, the fire fee is a new tax, but Faircloth said he would expect that the property tax rate would be lowered proportionately as the funding of fire services was shifted to a fire fee. He said he’d like for the fire fee to eventually fully fund the fire department.

Deborah Peterman, a retired community planner who worked in civil service for the U.S. Air Force and later in municipal government, is among those who oppose the fire fee.

Her chief objection is that it creates a new tax for service that she said should be funded through the general fund, which relies primarily on property taxes.

“I don’t’ want to go down that user fee road,” Peterman said. “Once they start, it’s addictive. It’s like free money ... like the SPLOST (special purpose local option sales tax). Once they get that money, it’s then let’s do it another two years and then another two years.”

She said she’s also bothered by the construction of the new station before city had the manpower to fully staff it.

But Gray said the new station was designed for the addition of manpower when available in order not to incur higher construction costs later. He also said the new station was designed in anticipation of the city’s growth.

Digging deeper

The mayor said he’s asked the Middle Georgia Regional Commission and the Georgia Municipal Association to see if there are any other governments considering a fee similar to what’s been proposed.

The GMA has sent inquires to other cities about the fire fee but so far has not received any word back, said Amy Henderson, GMA’s public information manager.

Henderson said she’s not aware of any other municipalities in Georgia that have imposed such a fee. She said some agencies impose a fire district fee for outlying areas. Some also have firefighters who double as police officers.

A fire district fee was imposed for outlying areas during the construction of the Davis Farms station, but that fee ended when the building was completed, Gray said. He said such fees can be used to fund construction but not salaries. Also, the lion’s share of the new station was funded by revenues from a special penny sales tax.

Although Gray did not find other governments in Georgia that impose a fire fee similar to what’s proposed for Perry, he said he did find other departments across the country that impose such a fee. Those fire departments are Iowa City, Iowa, Jacksonville, Fla., Leon County, Fla., Wake County, N.C., Morgantown, W,Va., and Hernando County, Fla., Gray said.

Also, the U.S. Fire Administration, in conjunction with the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Health Affairs and the International Fire Services Training Association, publish a periodic report that highlights the various ways fire departments across the country are handling similar funding issues. The report includes funding avenues for emergency medical service. Many agencies combine fire and EMS.

The solutions varied broadly among fire departments, according to the 2012 revised Funding Alternatives for Emergency Medical and Fire Services report. For example, many departments charge special fees for services ranging from cleaning up hazardous material to rescuing stranded motorists who attempted to drive through dangerous flood waters.

Some departments charge fees for responding to a house fire and send the property owner an itemized bill, according to the report.

To contact writer Becky Purser, call 256-9559.

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