VIDEO: Councilmen Face Tough Questions at Town Hall
Councilmen Bob Rush and Hooky Huffman received a cool reception from the gathering of citizens.
Two Canton city councilmen attempted to make their case for the March 19 fire bond referendum, but were met with stiff opposition from the assembled citizens.
Hooky Huffman and Bob Rush called the town hall meeting at the Fairways of Canton golf club in order to dispel rumors and inaccurate facts that were swirling around the bond, namely that the pro-bond council members had not done their due dilligence in regards to costs of the project.
Huffman showed the crowd a 2008 "Horizon 2030" study he was a part of, and said that the three stations that would be built if the fire bond passes are the same three stations proposed in 2008. Huffman said that if the bond referedum is passed, the three stations could be built at a cost of $6 million or less, compared to the $7.8 million earmarked for the project in 2008.
Furthermore, Huffman produced a letter from Latimer Construction, declaring that the estimates for the cost of building the fire stations was legitimate and reasonable.
"This is not just about the fact that we need more fire protection," Huffman said. "If we don't build these stations, we will start going backwards as a city."
Rush tried to explain why a supposed $2 million in SPLOST V money that was allocated to fire stations was never used to build them. According to Rush, the $2 million was an estimate based on a projected $16 million in SPLOST revenue. When only $13 million was actually generated, the proposed fire stations were simply scrapped as the money to pay for them hadn't been generated.
"If you have money set aside for public safety buildings and don't build them, that's bad faith with the public," he said.
Huffman then tried to quell fears of dramatic property tax increases due to operational costs of the new stations. The projected increase of 1 mil per new fire station would happen incrementally as each fire station is completed over a five-year period, Huffman said. According to Huffman, Canton's Chief Financial Officer Nathan Ingram believes that there will be no property tax hikes the first year of the bond.
Citizens in the audience, however, were less than enthused about the presentation, with many speakers calling out for consolidation with the county fire department or against the councilmen's "skewed" figures.
Huffman readily admitted that the numbers were "a bit skewed" towards support of the referendum, which brought ire from the crowd.
“I don't care if the name on the fire truck says Cherokee County or City of Canton, I just hope they get to my house in time,” said a veteran of the fire department.
Some citizens pointed out that the lion's share of costs incurred by fire departments are payroll-related. They seemed concerned that the city would be willing to saddle itself with more long-term debt in the way of salaries and pensions for the new city fire fighters that would be hired to staff the stations.
Former Cherokee County Commissioner Karen Bosch was in the audience, and railed against the fire bond, saying that the county had made multiple attempts to approach Canton officials about consolidation of services. Bosch provided Canton-Sixes Patch with a copy of the consolidation agreement from October, 2012, that was never implemented.
“Bring us a plan rather than wandering generalities,” Huffman responded.
Robert Stamp, a resident of the Soliel community, spoke about a study he was a part of in the early 1990s about the possible merger of three fire stations in Illinois. The committee recommended a merger and consolidation of services, but the cities refused this and built up their own stations. Three or four years later, Stamp said, the cities did consolidate their services.
"We need to carefully consider what we're getting ourselves into," Stamp concluded. "We might be able to do it more efficiently if we work together with the county. Let's move forward intelligently rather than independently."
The meeting concluded after an hour of confrontation and explanation. No further town halls on the bond referendum, which will be held March 19, have been planned so far.