Chatham County Commission moves forward with proposal for fire service payment

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SAVANNAH, Ga. (WSAV) – Chatham County Commissioners are moving forward with a fire tax for residents of the county’s unincorporated area.

It’s a result of a budget shortfall within Chatham Emergency Services. The Chatham Fire Chief said up to 10,000 properties are not paying for fire services, leaving the department short on funding.

At their December meeting, county commissioners approved a contract to help fund CES to keep the department whole. On Wednesday, commissioners met to vote on three measures including carving out specific fire districts and allowing the board to collect funds that will be used to pay CES.

“Fire service is not going to change,” said county manager Lee Smith. “When you dial 911, Chatham Emergency Services is coming. That will not change.”

County officials said they won’t know how much it will actually cost residents until mid-2022 when the budget is completed. Commissioners voted on Wednesday whether or not to amend the laws to allow a fire tax to be added to next year’s budget. Every commissioner voted yes, minus Dean Kicklighter who believes it’s being rushed.

“Wow, this is irresponsible for the tax payer’s to pass a means or a way to collect their taxes for a service that we have no clue at the moment what we’re gonna charge them,” the District Seven Commissioner said. “Yes, something has to be done to salvage and protect fire services. My God, I mean do you jump out on a limb?”

But Smith said Wednesday’s vote will allow the board to fine-tune the plan and ultimately decide if it will be a fire fee or tax. The county’s tax commissioner told officials the latter could be more effective.

“I think the letter we received she prefers the tax over because it’s easier to collect and it is easier to enforce,” Smith said. “A fee is difficult to enforce. She has no teeth in the law by which to enforce and I totally understand that.”

Smith said residents in the western part of the county including Pooler, Garden City and Port Wentworth won’t be affected, as well as places like Isle of Hope that rely on volunteer firefighters.

“If you receive an invoice today from Chatham Emergency Services, whether you pay it or not, you will be impacted and the dollars collected will begin this coming year in ‘22 from the county and we will then pay Chatham Emergency Services per the contract for service,” Smith said.

Officials said the county will begin town hall meetings to educate and hear feedback from the public. We’re told the fee won’t start showing up on bills until September 2022.

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