Savannah City Council considering fire service fee

CHATHAM CO., GA (WTOC) - If you own property in the City of Savannah, you could soon be paying a separate fee for fire protection.

Savannah City Council members are considering charging property owners a fire fee for fire service, similar to the fee for city water, sewer or sanitation services. The fee would be based on the property's square footage and fire risk.

Several surrounding cities, like Garden City and Bloomingdale, charge similar fees.

"I look at it as being a user fee because it means everybody that lives or has a business in Garden City will pay this fee," Garden City Mayor Don Bethune said. "Whereas unlike with property tax, not everybody pays property taxes, so it's a very equitable system. It's worked well for Garden City. It only pays about 30 percent of the budget for the fire department, and we get the rest of that revenue from our property tax, sales tax and other taxes."

All property and utility customers in Garden City are required to pay a fire protection fee and have been since January 2011.

"It's a very fair system," Bethune said. "It's worked well for us. When we initially enacted it a number of years back, we had very little complaints about it. If we didn't have that user fee, the fire fee, then we would have to get that from property taxes, and this is just a more equitable way to collect that money."

The city charges residents and apartments a flat fee of $10 a month and assesses commercial buildings to determine what it would take to put a fire.

"Your fee is based on the size of the building, whether it has sprinkler systems, whether it has alarm systems," he said. "There's a lot of different equations that go into that, but it works great for Garden City. I'll give you an example. An owner of an apartment complex, if we didn't have that fire fee, he would pay that in property taxes, so each one of those individual apartments would pay this user fee. So it actually helps out some of the businesses, but it just works better all the way around."

Bloomingdale bases its residential fee on home value and homeowner age, and its commercial building fee based on square footage.

Pooler is unique. Everyone living within the city pays for fire through property tax, and Fire Chief Wade Simmons said most of the department's roughly $4.5 million budget is funded through taxes. However, it also provides protection to two neighborhoods and one commercial property in unincorporated Chatham County and charges them a fire fee for it.

Simmons said there are about 750 homes of less than 2,000, and residents are charged a flat fee of $150. The commercial property is charged 2 1/2 cents per square foot or about $12,500. He said the pays for less than $100,000 of the department's budget.

Simmons said the specific fee helps residents know what their money pays for.

"It's helping justify it," Simmons said. "You know, you pay your taxes. Great. I pay an extra X amount of dollars, whatever it is. Well, where does it exactly go? Well, with the fire fee, it lets you know, hey, this money is being generated, this money is going to our fire and emergency service protection in the city. So, I think it helps clarify things for the city more than anything else."

With several cities in Chatham County charging fire fees and Pooler growing so much, Simmons said he expects Pooler to consider charging a fire service fee in the future.

Savannah City Council is set to discuss that proposed fire fee at a special called meeting Tuesday.

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