SAVANNAH, GA (WTOC) - City of Savannah residents who say they can't pay the new fire fee are now trying to jump fire lines and sign up with Chatham County's fire service. This comes after months of residents and non-profits begging the city to reconsider the new fee because they feel it taxes those who can least afford it. Once the city put down its foot requiring this fee, many residents picked up their phones and called the county as a last resort.
"All of the sudden our telephones started going crazy. People were calling. Business owners. Very influential people in the community were calling us saying you know, can we sign on with you for our fire protection?" Chuck Kearns, CEO of Chatham Emergency Services, said. "Homeowners. People from all walks of life. The calls are still coming in today."
County residents do have to pay an annual fee based on the value of their home, ranging from $75 to $573. The difference between the city and county fees, however, is county residents don't pay it if they cannot afford it.
Kearns said residents who cannot pay the fee do not have to go to court.
"Oh no. All they have to do is call the office," he said.
The city is still evaluating discounts for low-income residents, and certain other exceptions for their fire fee. But here is no grey area with the county. If you are a non-profit, or show proof of low-income, you don't pay. Unlike the city, the county says they don't charge for dirt.
"We do not charge for vacant land. We do not charge for grass and dirt," Kearns said. "We only charge for the value of the improvements, or the structure on the property."
Former County Commissioner and downtown property owner John McMasters said he was against the fire fee from the beginning.
"It was a desperate financial grab on behalf of the city," McMasters said.
He added that people should have the option of city or county fire services, but he would need to weigh his options first.
"The simple answer is I would have to evaluate the savings versus the added risk," he said.
The city of Savannah's duel with a non-profit fire services in the county is one example of tension between the two areas -- another notable example being the recent Savannah-Chatham Metro Police Department demerger. This tension is another reason state lawmakers are looking into government consolidation.
"The reason the Chamber of Commerce wants consolidation is so they don't have to pay the city government and the county government to get their policies passed," McMaster said.
The county fire department might also want to look at signing up for its own services. It has two fire stations within the city limits that fall under the city fire fee.