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Fire Department Consolidation Vote Fails

The Canton City Council discussed consolidating the city's fire department with the county's at Thursday night's meeting.

The voted Thursday night to table a decision to implement a fire tax district, which would include a 3.12 mill fire tax to augment the .

The proposal was made by Councilman Bob Rush after a vote to look into consolidating the city's fire department with the failed. Rush's proposal also would reduce city's property tax by 2.88 mills.

"It wouldn’t be a great amount of money, but it would be the same money we would be paying the county were we to go with a merger there," Rush said. "We get it into the City of Canton and we use it to augment our fire services."

Mayor Gene Hobgood said this proposal does nothing except make senior citizens pay an additional tax. Currently, approximately 1,183 senior citizens receive an exemption.

"That’s really all it does," Hobgood said. "It doesn’t solve our problem and doesn’t improve our fire service. It’s just going to be the tax dollars they pay that will make the difference. That’s going to be a long way from meeting the needs of two fire stations and ultimately even more."

The original proposal by Councilman Glen Cummins, which failed by a 5-1 vote, was to negotiate a merger of fire services with Cherokee County. Minimum requirements in the proposed intergovernmental agreement were to include construction of two fire stations in the north and east sections of Canton, placing two ambulances at two separate stations, absorption of all Canton Fire Department personnel and equipment, charging Canton residents the same fire district tax rate as charged in Cherokee county and eventual construction of Cherokee Training Center.

"That’s the minimum," Cummins said. "I think as we go through in this intergovernmental agreement, discussions and negotions, it will come down to very fine points."

Cummins said a consultant hired by the city recommended a multitude of improvements to the city's fire services, and several were considered by the Fire Services Committee, ranging from doing the minimal amount to maintain the city's ISO rating of 4 to drastically expanding services. The committee was not able to agree on anything besides doing the minimal amount of work, Cummins said.

"During the course of the evaluation, the option that appeared to be the most cost effective way to significantly increase our fire service coverage and improve public safety was to consolidate with the county fire deptartment," Cummins said.

Although the merger would result in the construction of two additional fire and ambulance stations in Canton, and the eventual construction of a county-wide training center, one downside to the merger would be that senior citizens would have to pay a fire district tax. That would amount to approximately $250 a year on a $200,000 house. Cummins said he was prepared to vote for the proposal even though his personal costs would increase about $375 a year.

"I was electd to make hard decisions, not push the decisions down the road," he said. "I will always vote for what’s best for Canton citizens as a whole and not just what is best for me or a single minority group. I have no qualms about Cherokee County’s ability to manage the fire services needed by the city of Canton. They have already proven to me their capability and professionalism."

Rush said he couldn't disagree more with Cummins' proposal.

"I don’t see anything wrong with talking to Cherokee County, but I don’t think we should go in that direction," Rush said. "I’m going to vote no on this one and try to get the fire district for the city."

Hobgood said the decision comes down to improving fire service or maintaining the status quo.

"I think there’s a lot of discussion here," he said. "This motion that’s been made is not one that takes any action. It doesn’t complete any transaction at all. It just says, let’s put it together, come back and if it’s something you want to do vote for it. If you dont want to do it, you vote against it. It’s not consolidating with the county. It’s not a vote to do that or not to do that."

The city is now in this position partly because of bad management from City Hall, said Rush, who noted that SPLOST 6 included $2 million for fire and government buildings.

"We put it somewhere else," he said. "Now we’re talking about we can’t fix it, let’s give it away."

The council is expected to take up the issue again at its July work session. To watch video coverage of Thursday night's council meeting, click here.

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