Debate over fire services heats up in Chatham County

Debate over fire services heats up in Chatham County

CHATHAM COUNTY, Ga. (WTOC) - There’s a passionate debate underway over fire protection in parts of Chatham County.

Most people pay for fire services through their taxes. But in Georgia, that’s not always the case. State law does not require counties to provide fire services. That’s become an issue in unincorporated Chatham County.

Now, there’s talk of requiring people to pay a private company for the service. It’s pitting some neighbors against each other and sparked a debate over who should pay for fire services and how.

In the unincorporated parts of Chatham County, Chatham Emergency Services covers all fire-related calls. They used to be called Southside Fire until several years ago. They operate Chatham Fire, as well as Chatham EMS. They are a private company that completely relies on subscriptions for payment. It’s been that way for decades.

Chatham Fire claims more than 10,000 residences in unincorporated Chatham County do not pay for fire services at all. Leaving it up to their neighbors to cover the costs.

Now, the fire department says it’s short a projected $3,000,000. They want non-subscribers to start paying up.

“There’s and expense to that,” said Chatham Emergency Services CEO Chuck Kearns. “There’s a readiness cost to having all these firefighters and this equipment here, ready, on the clock, insured with all the equipment, the fuel. It’s not free!”

According to Chatham Fire, of the 34,688 properties in unincorporated Chatham County, 10,171 are not paying for fire protection. That averages out to just over 29 percent of homes in that designated area of the county. Kearns said CES found those numbers by using a billing software that pulls data from the Chatham County Board of Assessors public records.

Kearns says subscriptions are based on property value and size, and that they cost - on-average - about $300 a year.

Kearns argues that if you multiply 10,000 (roughly the number of non-subscribers, according to Chatham E.S.) by 300 (the average cost of a subscription, according to Chatham E.S.), it would cover their projected $3,000,000 shortfall.

But some residents ask, why now? And how did Chatham Fire allow its budget to get to this point?

Kearns said Chatham E.S. has covered Chatham Fire’s budget shortfalls in years past by borrowing money from their other services, like ambulance and security. But now, according to Kearns, they need the money from unpaid subscriptions to keep the entire Chatham E.S. budget from going into the red.

Kearns tells WTOC the new money would be put toward upgrading fire equipment, stations, and salaries.

WTOC Investigates requested Chatham E.S.’s full budget. Chatham E.S., represented by Kearns, declined, citing that it is a private company, and that publicizing such information would be

detrimental to them, as publishing that information would allow other such companies to gain an unfair competitive advantage on them.

Kearns did tell WTOC that Chatham E.S.’s projected budget for the 2021 fiscal year is $26,500,000. Kearns said the projected earnings sit at $26,360,000. That’s a $140,000 shortfall.

Kearns said Chatham Fire’s significant budget shortfall is the reason for that. According to Kearns, Chatham Fire’s projected budget is $10,500,000. Its income is a projected $7,500,000… a $3,000,000 shortfall.

WTOC cannot independently verify those numbers. Kearns tells WTOC – per their contract with Chatham County – the county has the ability to audit Chatham E.S. at any time and can appoint someone representing the county to its board. Furthermore, Kearns said Chatham E.S. shares its budget with members at its annual meeting. Kearns said the budget is shared verbally at those meetings but added that the meetings are recorded.

Some subscribers tell WTOC they feel it’s time non-subscribers pay-up.

“They’re not supporting who they should. Yet, when you dial 9-1-1, guess who shows up,” said Joe Cantrell, a resident of unincorporated Chatham County and a Chatham E.S. subscriber. Chatham County resident and longtime subscriber Ed Chapman feels the same way.

“There’s just got to be a way to figure this out,” Chapman said. “Because our first responders don’t deserve this right now.”

But not everyone is on the same page. Some residents are concerned about being forced to pay a subscription or tax, to a private company. Skidaway Island resident - and longtime subscriber - Judson Cuttino is one of them.

“Currently, right now, they have a monopoly,” said Cuttino.

Cuttino thinks the county should enter a new contractual partnership with Chatham Fire and tax all residents for their services. But he wants the new contract to force more transparency. Cuttino said that way, residents know exactly how their money is being spent.

“This is a totally private company with no oversight,” said Cuttino. Kearns told WTOC the company is completely transparent.

The decision on how to move forward now sits with the Chatham County Board of commissioners.

“Chatham County has never had a fire department,” said Chatham County Board of Commissioners Chairman Chester Ellis.

Ellis said the county is looking at several solutions to help aid Chatham E.S.’s budget shortfall… including a mandatory subscription, or a tax.

Ellis said the county starting its own fire department is not an option. Ellis said that would cost tens of millions of dollars.

Ellis told WTOC he is in no rush to make a decision. The chairman said he wants to hear from taxpayers first - before any decision is made.

“We are not trying to make those who are subscribing pay for unsubscribes,” said Ellis. “Those who aren’t subscribing, we want to know why. Alright? We want to know what kind of a burden that puts on people.” Ellis favors a wait-and-see approach. But Kearns says they’re ready to take action as soon as the county is.

“We know who the people are – the property owners in our service area,” said Kearns. “And, if this were to pass, we would immediately send out over 10,000 new bills.”

Chatham County is holding zoom town hall meeting for each fire district in unincorporated Chatham County, so taxpayers have a chance to voice their opinions on each proposed solution. The information for those meetings can be found here: https://www.chathamcountyga.gov/OurCounty/VirtualTownHalls

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