Perry considering adding fire fee

mstucka@macon.comMay 4, 2014 

Perry opened a fire station in 2013 near the intersection of Langston and Houston Lake roads. The Davis Farm Station, at 150 Commodore Drive, spread the fire department’s personnel out. City officials are considering a fee for fire service to cover the 18 firefighters who will be needed on a new fire truck.

MIKE STUCKA/THE TELEGRAPH — mstucka@macon.com Buy Photo

PERRY -- Dan Bellamy wanted to finish a repair job and his 10:30 a.m. breakfast of leftover hot dogs before guessing how a planned Perry fire fee could affect the jewelry business he’d launched in the midst of a recession.

On Tuesday, Perry City Council is expected to begin laying the groundwork for a fire fee that would pay for the additional firefighters needed to cover the city, which has pushed its city limits to within sight of Warner Robins. The latest idea is to have separate fees for homes, small businesses and large businesses.

Bellamy, owner of Bellamy’s Jewelers, worried the city was improperly moving away from fire service paid by property taxes. Even owners of vacant lots should pay something, because they can have brush fires, he said.

“If they’re needing to raise funds, any combustible property ought to contribute,” said Bellamy, who opened his store in 2010 on Carroll Street. He said most storefronts were vacant then, but things have picked up.

“I am seeing steady improvements in revenue, but if the overhead increases, it’s going to be very frustrating,” he said.

City Manager Lee Gilmour said details aren’t yet finalized, and he had no idea how much money businesses would pay. But the concept already has been tweaked.

“Council was concerned about the fact that it may not be totally equitable that a shop downtown may pay the same as a Wal-Mart, for example,” he said.

The fee would be similar to the current stormwater utility fee, which appears on monthly bills.

A specific proposal could be available in about two weeks. Gilmour said an original estimate, that the owner of an average house would pay about $60 a year, is likely a good ballpark.

Tuesday, the City Council appears likely to establish a fire fee tax district, which would cover the entire city. That would not establish the fee itself or any of its details.

City Council members have been talking about such a fire fee for several years.

The city last year opened a new fire station near the intersection of Houston Lake and Langston roads. When it did that, the city spread out its existing staff and equipment. However, a new fire truck is expected in the coming weeks, and the city doesn’t have enough firefighters to fully run all the equipment.

Fire Chief Joel Gray told The Telegraph last month that the city also is taking a hit on an assessment of how good the city’s fire protection is, a measurement called an ISO rating. That’s pushing homeowners’ insurance rates up higher than the fee would, Gray said.

Perry Mayor Jimmy Faircloth told The Telegraph that such increased homeowners insurance rates may often but not always cost more than the fee.

“I have heard of people’s insurance doubling, from $400 a year to $800 a year,” Faircloth said. In those cases, a $60 annual fire tax is a bargain. But insurance costs vary, particularly with the house.

Gilmour’s analysis last month suggested the average home would pay a fee of $57.60 a year for the increased fire protection, compared with a $125.48 annual increased cost if the same money were raised through a property tax increase. Among the differences: Non-profit hospitals, schools and some other entities do not pay property taxes but would pay the fee.

City Council members indicated last month they thought the fee would be more fair than a property tax increase. Faircloth repeated that.

“It spreads the cost of the service among the people who actually use it,” he said last week. “That is not necessarily the case of the property tax.”

Bellamy said fairness will come through property taxes. “It should come out of property tax, not out of an additional fee to businesses,” he said.

Faircloth said the city has been talking about adding a fee for three years. When he talks about a fire fee with people, the conversation doesn’t normally start well.

“The general consensus has not been positive. I would not expect it to be. People are generally not positive about increases in taxes or fees,” he said.

But Faircloth said as he tells people more about the fire fee, they come to accept it. Faircloth said the city will not approve any fees without at least two public hearings or town hall meetings.

“We will not do it until we are comfortable we have given the public an adequate opportunity to become informed about what it is we’re doing,” Faircloth said.

To contact writer Mike Stucka, call 744-4251.

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