SAVANNAH, Ga. (AP) — Leaders of coastal Georgia's largest county will tax residents in unincorporated areas to provide fire service, abandoning a plan to try to force people to pay what have been voluntary subscriptions.
The Savannah Morning News reports that Chatham County commissioners voted Friday to cover $11.5 million in costs of Chatham Fire, a private group, out of county reserves. The county will then impose a fee on property tax bills for residents in unincorporated areas to recover the costs.
Trying to avoid such a tax or fee, county staffers had proposed an ordinance that would have allowed Chatham Fire to sue people who didn't pay its fee. Commissioners voted unanimously to reject that plan and instead create a fee.
“I do not want to see fire protection services disrupted and we have the resources to do this. We could fund them starting Jan. 1, 2022, with current resources, I’m completely confident,” said Commissioner Patrick Ferrell.
Georgia counties aren't required to provide fire protection.
Chatham Fire serves more than 35,000 properties in unincorporated Chatham County, but about 20% of residential property owners don't pay fire service subscriptions. The leaders of the fire service said that causes shortfalls.
The rejected proposal would have allowed fines of up to $500 a day for nonpayment.
Resident Ann Sheils said her bill had increased $400 in one year and implored the board to look at a solution that would be fair for all residents.
“The idea that my husband and I, and many of you, are paying the bills of people who just choose not to is basically unfair and you cannot let that continue,” the newspaper reported she said.
She also said it's unfair to base payments on the value of both structures and land, as opposed to just structures.
Chatham County Manager Lee Smith said he could make a proposal on required fees in coming days. Commissioners could vote on the details on Dec. 17.
Chatham Emergency Services CEO Chuck Kearns said the county's funding means Chatham Fire is likely to partially refund fire payments to property owners.
“The fact that the county commission unanimously voted to fully fund and support the fire department beginning Jan. 1 is a better result than we could expect and the best Christmas present for all of our first responders,” Kearns said.