Originally created 05/16/04

Change arrives despite politics



To trace the progress of firefighting in the two rapidly suburbanizing counties that flank Augusta to the east and west, consider the equipment Appling used before buying its first real fire engine in 1988.

"We had an old forestry truck called a fire knocker," said Tom McFarland, the chief of the old Appling Volunteer Fire Department. "And we had an old Hertz rental truck that we put a tank on the back of, and that was our first tanker."

To gauge how much times have changed in Columbia and Aiken counties, two formerly rural jurisdictions that are struggling to adapt their traditional firefighting networks to the stress of high growth, take a look at Chief McFarland's expanded title and responsibilities.

He's now chief of North Columbia Fire and Rescue, the new banner created with the merger of volunteer fire departments in Leah, Winfield and Appling. Chief McFarland is responsible for 100 firefighters and eight stations covering 150 square miles of rural Columbia County.

The new department also has a new and more stable source of revenue to pay for expensive equipment and training. Instead of fire fees, which have been notoriously hard to collect, Chief McFarland's outfit relies on property tax revenue.

"The pressures are the same in both counties," said Aiken County Administrator Clay Killian. "We're both feeling some of those growing pains. When the population grows, the services need to grow with it."

Political turmoil has accompanied this march toward consolidation and reform, a conflict that has stirred up rivalries and resentment in both counties.

In Columbia County, this was evidenced by the recently settled dispute between the county and the volunteer fire departments of Harlem and Grovetown.

Both towns provide fire service to county residents living nearby, and both were reluctant to renegotiate contracts with the county to provide the coverage.

In Aiken County, the political fault line can be seen in the county government's three-month delay in addressing a request by the Aiken Fire Chiefs' Association to replace fire fees with a countywide fire tax for unincorporated areas.

Most of this delay has been caused by the legal hurdles associated with Aiken County's firefighting network, a patchwork of 20 volunteer fire departments and two full-time services based in Aiken and North Augusta, Mr. Killian said.

The proposed move toward a countywide fire tax is complicated by the presence of four special-purpose districts - Langley, Belvedere, Clearwater and Bath - created by the Legislature in the 1950s so residents could tax themselves to build water and sewer lines.

Over the years, the elected bodies that control those districts expanded to include fire protection. County government can't abolish these districts, Mr. Killian said, and residents of those jurisdictions would have to approve joining the new firefighting system.

The same applies to the 11 incorporated towns in Aiken County. Aiken city officials already have said they have no interest in joining the county's proposed plan because it would mean giving up premium fees the city charges county residents for fire service.

Most volunteer departments would welcome the switch to a countywide fire tax, said Mark Key, the president of the Aiken County Fire Chiefs' Association, because of the difficulty in collecting fire fees.

He is the former chief of the volunteer department in New Ellenton, which loses about $25,000 to $30,000 a year in unpaid fire fees.

"They realize there's a problem with the fees and that some departments struggle year-to-year to make ends meet," Mr. Key said.

Columbia County's solution is one that Aiken County would like to implement.

This year, county residents are switching from subscription fees to property taxes to pay for fire protection. In turn, the county government has entered into service contracts with the four fire departments.

The switchover could have been damaging for the county's two cities - Harlem and Grovetown - if last-minute contract negotiations had not gone through.

The cities, located south of Interstate 20, charge their residents for fire protection and used to bill subscription fees for the nearby unincorporated areas. In the end, the cities agreed to be paid $532 each time one of their fire departments responds to a call outside the cities.

"It was important that we come to a conclusion on that contract," Grovetown Mayor Dennis Trudeau said. "If we didn't get anything at all, we would be losing one-tenth or one-eighth of our fire department's budget."

He said he expects the city to receive about $200,000 because of the many calls that went out during January's ice storm. Last year, Grovetown collected $140,000 in subscription fees from residents in the unincorporated area.

Harlem expects to be paid about $80,000 from the county if calls continue on a similar pace for the rest of the year. Last year, it collected $68,000 for the 5,000 or so people who live outside the city's limits.

Columbia County's contracts with the city run only until the end of this year. The groups will have to sit down again to discuss the future and what role the cities' fire departments will play in the rural areas.

"We will run it until they don't want us to run it anymore, and then if they don't want us, we'll collapse into our city limits and hopefully expand our city limits," Harlem Mayor Scott Dean said. "The best thing from this fire study is they're helping us with annexation. Folks want to be part of our fire service, and they don't want to be taxed by the county additionally.

"That may help us in the end."

Results of growth

Columbia County now has four fire departments:

  • Martinez Fire Department covers the densely populated, eastern part of the county.

  • North Columbia Fire and Rescue, the merged volunteer departments of Leah, Winfield and Appling, covers 150 square miles in the rural part of the county.

  • Harlem Fire Department and Grovetown Department of Public Safety each cover the areas within their city limits in addition to unincorporated areas of the county south of Interstate 20.

    Aiken County has 22 firefighting outfits, including two full-time departments in North Augusta and Aiken. The rest are volunteer departments covering the Midland Valley and the rural sections of eastern and southern Aiken County.