AIKEN - County residents who receive fire protection from the city of Aiken are paying hundreds of dollars a year for the service, while residents within the city don't have to pay extra.
The fee structure leaves some county residents paying more for city fire protection than city residents pay in municipal property taxes.
For example, a $100,000 house inside Aiken limits pays $284 in city property taxes but not a dime for fire protection, according to county estimates.
The same house located in the county, if it also gets city water, pays $360 to receive fire protection from the city.
Homes that don't receive water pay $100 a year for protection.
The disparity has drawn the ire of county residents on the fringe of Aiken's limits or within the so-called "doughnut holes," unincorporated subdivisions surrounded by the city.
County Councilmen Scott Singer and Rick Osbon, who represent residents in or near the city, recently approached the city about the imbalance.
"On the surface, it doesn't seem to be equitable," said Mr. Osbon, who, along with his neighbors in the Gem Lakes subdivision, receives city fire protection.
The fee is fair, City Manager Roger LeDuc told the county in a letter he wrote in March, because Aiken's Class 2 fire rating service - 1 being the best - lowers homeowners' insurance bills.
If the owner of that $100,000 house in the county who pays for city fire service lived in Eureka, where the volunteer fire department has a Class 9 rating, they'd pay $475 more per year to insure their home, according to a cost comparison by an Aiken insurance agency.
To provide such first-rate fire protection, Mr. LeDuc wrote, the city had to build two new stations during the 1990s, bringing the total to four.
A fifth station is planned for a location east of the Aiken Mall by 2007 and is estimated to cost $1 million.
"We have a much higher level of service than a lot of other departments," Mr. LeDuc said Thursday.
He also said it's the city's policy to recover 100 percent of costs of services provided outside of Aiken's limits.
That policy could complicate a plan the county is reviewing that would change how its more than 20 volunteer fire departments collect money to provide fire protection.
Right now, most of the county's volunteer departments charge a fire fee that is independent of residents' property taxes. They've struggled to collect the fee and have asked the county to develop a millage for fire service that would be added onto property taxes and provide a more stable source of money.
County officials said the proposed fire millage would have to be uniform.
If that holds true, the city could no longer charge county residents it protects any more than residents in rural parts of the county, who pay far less.
"We're not interested in becoming part of that program," Mr. LeDuc said.
He said it was his belief that the county could charge fees that varied from fire district to fire district.
Mr. Singer, who said he'd heard complaints from just a small number of residents, said he'd be willing to work with the city.
"If they're getting more bang for their buck, I think there's some justification for the deferential," he said of county residents getting city protection.
"Those are unanswered questions at this point," Mr. Singer said.
Reach Josh Gelinas at (803)279-6895 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
FIRE FEE FUSS
Aiken County relies on a patchwork of more than 20 volunteer departments and two full-time city departments, in North Augusta and Aiken, to provide fire protection. County residents who rely on Aiken firefighters complain about high fees charged by the city for service thats included in the tax bill of city residents.
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