Chatham County Commission votes to designate fire fee instead of tax

Published: May. 13, 2022 at 6:36 PM EDT
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SAVANNAH, Ga. (WTOC) - Today’s vote was all about designating this charge for fire service as a fee instead of a tax and that’s exactly what Commissioners did after months of discussion.

Some on Commission shared a few thoughts ahead of the vote.

“It’s easy to blame the Southside Fire Department, but the fact remains, there’s a large portion of people living in our County that chooses to let other people pay for their fire protection services,” said 7th District Commissioner Dean Kicklighter.

Kicklighter says those who have refused to pay Chatham Fire for fire protection services over the years are shifting the burden of picking up the tab for fire services to their neighbors.

Kicklighter explained, “We either had to raise your millage rate, or we had to put some type of fee on, cause we had to save Southside Fire Department from going under. Because had that happened, at that point, had your house caught on fire...too bad, too sad, it’s going.”

Commissioner argued the fee that will be imposed will be much more fair than imposing a tax hike for everyone in the unincorporated county to cover the cost of fire service. One of Kicklighter’s fellow Commissioners chimed in after his remarks.

District 6 Commissioner Aaron Whitely said, “No other entity put us in this situation but us. And what I mean by that, we cannot blame Chatham Fire, EMS or or any other organization except us. Because we are here due to a lack of foresight. We are here because we did not create any type of fire infrastructure to do something, to be able to RFP, or create other options.”

Now that the fee has officially been adopted, property owners who don’t pay could face a lien on their property, and be taken to magistrate court until the fee is paid. No fees will be collected until after July 1.

For Chatham Fire, having the funds available now from the fees that homeowners previously weren’t paying means they can be more competitive when it comes to finding new firefighters.

Chatham Emergency Services CEO also says those millions of dollars will also go towards buying new fire trucks, remodeling older stations and building new ones.

Chatham Emergency Services CEO Chuck Kearns said, “Right now we are short to our fire budget about 20 firefighters. We have twelve who are in our academy right now, getting ready to graduate in the next month or two. And we have applications from 52 more for the next class. So this is going to be able to allow us to not only complete these classes, hire these people, and fill up our staffing...increase our staffing...which is one of the major things required for a good ISO rating.”

ISO rating is the Insurance Services Office rating. The better your fire department’s rating is, can mean lower property tax for you.

County leaders say there’ll likely be a lot of residents wanted to know the exact fee for their property, but those details are still being worked out. They’re asking for everyone to have patience while the hash out those calculations.

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