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County considers fire substations

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By Calen McKinney

County residents will soon get the chance to voice their opinions about building fire substations and establishing a fire taxing district in Taylor County.

Magistrates agreed Tuesday night at a special Fiscal Court meeting to support having public meetings to discuss the possibility.

Taylor County Firewise Board member Tom Fisher addressed the Court about the substations and the possibility of establishing a fire taxing district.

Taylor County Judge/Executive Eddie Rogers said the substations could help residents save money on their homeowner's insurance premiums.

He said the issue, however, will be a "hard sell" to residents.

"I don't want to say tax," he said. "But the proposal is to create a fire taxing district."

Fisher said the Firewise Board was created after the County received a grant to educate the public about fire protection. He said the Board has met and discussed the possibility of building fire substations to increase fire response time and help residents save money on their insurance premiums.

Fisher said the Firewise Board recommends establishing a fire taxing district to help pay the cost of building and maintaining the substations.

Substations would increase fire response time and provide better protection in the event of a fire, Fisher said.

Fisher presented several figures to magistrates, including the total of property values in Taylor County - about $1.2 billion.

Fisher presented similar figures to magistrates last November.

The cost to build each of four proposed substations, Fisher said, could total more than $1 million each when including costs for a building, equipment, land, insurance, training and additional annual operating expenses of about $125,000.

A headquarters building could cost about $1.9 million to construct, he said, and that substation could be located in the new industrial park.

Fisher said the County greatly needs to divide its emergency service operations because one tornado could destroy the fire department and 911 Center, leaving the County without any way to contact emergency service officials.

Fisher said the substations would be operated primarily with all volunteers, with only one or two paid personnel to handle associated paperwork.

He said the Firewise Board recommends implementing a .09 tax rate to cover the cost of building and operating the substations.

That rate, he said, would cost an average resident about $59 each year. The rate could be less the first few years, he said, because building the substations would likely take several years.

After the meeting, Fisher said the issue of whether residents who live inside the City limits would be required to pay the tax would have to be discussed.

After discussing the opening of fire substations with several local insurance companies, Fisher said, he calculated that County residents could see a total of about $5 million in insurance savings.

Some companies could not give specific savings because each person's insurance plan will be different, Fisher said, but the agents said that the substations would be beneficial.

"They all agreed there would be an annual savings," he said.

Fisher said equipping the substations would not be cheap but there are some grants available to help combat the cost. He said the Firewise Board has applied for an $800,000 grant from Rep. Ron Lewis' office. Rogers said the Board has not yet heard if it has been awarded the grant.

Fisher said another issue to be discussed is the willingness of Taylor County residents to volunteer as firefighters. The substations could require as many as 80 volunteers.

In November, Taylor County Volunteer Fire Department Chief George Wilson told magistrates that there are currently 40 volunteers, with only six or eight responding to fire calls.

He said volunteers must have 150 hours of training, which could take up to two years to complete. He said the state has agreed to work with the Firewise Board and could reduce that time period to one year.

Fisher said the Firewise Board needs the Court's help to determine the community's interest in fire substations.

He said he would like to have three or four public meetings to discuss establishing a taxing district, building fire substations and recruiting volunteer firefighters.

He said he would also like to have help from County Attorney Craig Cox in writing an ordinance or petition to implement the taxing district. Cox said either could be done.

To implement a taxing district with a petition, Taylor County Clerk Mark Carney said, about 2,000 signatures would be required.

A committee, Fisher said, would also need to be appointed to oversee the administration of any grants the Firewise Board receives.

Rogers asked magistrates if they would like to go forward with Fisher's requests and begin discussing them.

Magistrate James Jones said he sees no harm in researching the issue.

Fisher said he will be giving a presentation on the substations for various civic and other organizations to gauge their interest.

Jones made a motion to proceed with Fisher's requests by having public hearings. Magistrate Ed Gorin seconded Jones' motion, which was unanimously approved.

Rogers said the hearings will help decide if the Firewise Board should go forward with its research.

"If they're not interested, we can't help them," he said.

Magistrate Richard Phillips said the Court should be careful as to how it gauges public support. No one could show up at the public hearings, he said, but that doesn't mean the public isn't interested in the substations.

Fisher said the public hearings are essential, however, to help the Firewise Board begin to gauge how the public feels.

- Staff Writer Calen McKinney can be reached at 465-8111 Ext. 235 or by e-mail at reporter@cknj.com. Comment on this story at www.cknj.com.