SAVANNAH, GA (WTOC) - WTOC is hearing from state and local officials who are also calling for answers after a WTOC investigation revealed that tax dollars are not going towards fire protection in the unincorporated portion of Chatham County.
There is also no contract between Southside Fire and the county that guarantees all residents remain protected.
WTOC’s Investigative Reporter Elizabeth Rawlins has been investigating the relationship between Chatham EMS/Southside Fire. The non-profit organization technically has the upper hand when it comes to who they contract with, but firefighters we spoke to paint a very different picture, telling WTOC Chatham County is in control, and Southside Fire is afraid of rocking the boat.
A former Southside Firefighter we spoke to wanted to remain anonymous to protect his friends and former colleagues who still work for Southside.
“I literally watched your story and if I wasn’t angry about it, I would have laughed” said the firefighter.
In a WTOC Investigation that aired on September 5, we told you that Chatham County received $5 million from the state last year, but didn’t give Southside Fire a dime.
In fact, Southside has missed out on a portion of more than $40 million the county has received over the last 10 years from the state’s premium tax.
Per state law, the county can decide whether to put that money towards fire protection services, but Georgia law does say non-profit fire departments are supposed to have a contract with the county in which they serve. Chatham County and Southside confirm that no contract exists, protecting residents in the unincorporated portion of the county.
“Technically, Southside could decide tomorrow that they are going to pull their services," Rawlins asked the firefighter.
“They absolutely could,” he said.
WTOC has no reason to believe that Southside Fire services are in jeopardy, but the idea of no binding contract to protect residents, including State Representative Ron Stephens, is unsettling.
“I’m stunned and of course just hearing about the issue,” said Rep. Stephens. “The idea that we don’t have a contract with a service that’s being provided, and we’ve got the potential to lose the provider for fire.”
We told Stephens about our Sept. 5 conversation with Chatham County Commission Chairman Al Scott.
“When we enter into a subscription service in the unincorporated area, that is in fact a contract with Southside,” Chairman Scott said.
Rawlins asked Rep. Stephens if that counts as a contract.
“Boy, that’s stretching it. I’m not sure, I probably won’t go there,” Rep. Stephens replied.
Chatham County Commissioner Helen Stone also weighed in.
Rawlins: “Are you concerned that there’s not a legitimate contract between the county and Southside?"
Stone: “At this time, I haven’t been told that there’s not a legitimate contract, so I would have to look at it."
Again, there is no contract for fire services for all residents in the unincorporated portion of the county.
Since Chatham County doesn’t have their own fire department, Southside is the defacto, so they should have the upper hand when it comes to getting a contract and money from the county, and yet it’s hard to understand why those with ties to Southside are so scared.
“People that deal with the county are scared to death,” said the firefighter who wants to remain anonymous.
In our investigation, WTOC found that Southside’s attorney, who would be the one to draft a contract, is Jonathan Hart, who is also the county attorney.
He did not want to talk to us on camera, but he tells WTOC that representing Southside is not a conflict of interest. However, when we asked him specifically about a contract between the two, he told us he would not be able to be involved; implying that could be a conflict of interest.
Current Southside Fire officials deny fearing the county. However, they would not sit down to do an interview with us unless the county manager was present, and that interview was canceled at the last minute because the county manager was sick.
We’re told since our last story aired, the county has reached out to Southside about drafting a new contract that guarantees fire services for every resident in unincorporated Chatham County, because right now, the only binding connection between Southside Fire and the county is the county attorney.
“The woman out on Old River Road whose house burned down and received the $15,000 bill, you know it really wasn’t a mistake,” the firefighter said. “They are simply just trying to recoup their cost, but if there was an agreement between the county, and Southside that was a feasible and reasonable, look at how things work. That bill would have never shown up. They wouldn’t have had to be billed because it would have been covered by your taxes.”
He is referring to a WTOC story we covered in August which is the reason WTOC started asking questions and launched this investigation.
According to Southside officials, they have not attempted to ask for any money from the county nor have they asked about a contract.