WARRENVILLE, S.C. - Like a lot of folks living in Aiken County, Mary Delaney's mailing address doesn't match her telephone exchange, a common occurrence in a sprawling jurisdiction where service boundaries often fail to make geographic sense.
She has a Warrenville mailing address for her home and the auto body shop and wrecker service next door owned by her and her husband, Jason, but customers and friends have to dial her up on a Graniteville phone number.
Such confusion doesn't cost her any money. But the fire department that covers her home and business is now taking a 173 percent bigger bite out of her bank account.
The steep fee increase from the Langley Volunteer Fire Department has this red-haired tow-truck driver seeing a bright shade of crimson.
"They're taking advantage of the local business, thinking we've got more money," said Mrs. Delaney, who brought her bill to the three-member board that oversees the Langley Volunteer Fire Department just before Christmas.
It also seems symptomatic of problems small and large that plague Aiken County's patchwork of 20 fiercely independent volunteer fire departments - all under increasing pressure to serve a large and rapidly urbanizing county, all struggling to keep pace with escalating certification demands and the cost of replacing aging equipment.
"Her issue points to a much larger issue, and that is consistent fire protection throughout the county," District 2 member Scott Singer said when Mrs. Delaney spoke at last week's Aiken County Council meeting. "We need to address this issue."
Said District 4 member Chuck Smith: "It's a convoluted system."
Although the county has two full-time fire departments in Aiken and North Augusta, the rest of the county is covered by the 20 volunteer fire departments that depend on fees collected from people living in their districts and whatever federal grants they can win to help with equipment purchases, buildings and training.
County government has no jurisdiction over these departments or the fees they charge, said County Administrator Clay Killian. And there is no separate county fire department, save for a fire team manning two trucks posted at Sage Mill Industrial Park, the location of the Bridgestone-Firestone tire plant and the SKF USA Inc. bearing factory.
The financial foundation of these volunteer departments ranges from solid to shaky, depending on the population and wealth of the district.
As a result, fire fees vary.
A house with two chicken coops is charged a $50 fire fee by the Sandy Ridge Volunteer Fire Department; a homeowner with a $100,000 house will pay $80 a year for coverage from the Montmorenci Volunteer Fire Department, part of a sliding scale that tops out at $250 for a house worth $430,000 or more.
Over the decades, these departments have become political fiefdoms of a sort, agencies whose independence is jealously guarded by fire chiefs, firefighters and the boards that govern them. That makes a political minefield out of the county government's attempt to draw up millage for fire service and figure out a way to distribute the resulting tax revenue among the 20 departments.
"Everybody guards their turf," said Jeff Leopard, a Burke County, Ga., firefighter and emergency medical technician who is chief of the Langley volunteer department. "We like to keep our control, but it's hard for us to collect our money."
Although she lives and works just a mile south of Augusta Road in Warrenville, Mrs. Delaney's home and business fall within the lines of the fire district served by the Langley department.
Because she falls on the other side of a dotted line, Mrs. Delaney has to pay $100 more in fire fees for her business than she would in the adjacent district, covered by the Graniteville-Vaucluse-Warrenville Volunteer Fire Department.
The annual charge for fire service to her home, business and vacant property has climbed from $84 last year to $280 this year, she said. The county shaved $50 off her original bill, reducing the increase to 173 percent.
Mr. Leopard says the $200 fee charged to Mrs. Delaney's business is reasonable because it houses paints, lacquers and other flammable fluids that require hazardous materials equipment.
"You got some who want to help you out, and you got others that if you raise their fee, they kick up a fuss," Mr. Leopard said.
WHAT THEY'RE PAYING
A sampling of annual fire fees:
BEECH ISLAND VOLUNTEER FIRE DEPARTMENT: Houses between $80,000 and $120,000, $84; trailers, $100; small industrial with hazardous materials, $750.
CLEARWATER VOLUNTEER FIRE DEPARTMENT: Houses inside Clearwater Village, $36; commercial with light hazardous material, $200.
SANDY RIDGE VOLUNTEER FIRE DEPARTMENT: Houses with two chicken coops, $50; trailer parks, $100.
GRANITEVILLE-WARRENVILLE-VAUCLUSE VOLUNTEER FIRE DEPARTMENT: Houses, $35; commercial, $85.
Source: Aiken County Budget Ordinance for fiscal year 2003-2004.
Reach Jim Nesbitt at (803) 648-1395 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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