Prior to the vote District One Commissioner Helen Stone expressed concerns over the flat fee and how the property structures such as docks, decks or other open areas would be calculated. Stone also said she had reservations about how the county ended up in the situation.
"I know this has been a very arduous task to come up with a process of trying to figure out a fair way to arrive at this fee. I'm a little concerned that we're having to pick up the ball, we're between a rock and a hard place where Chatham Fire and EMS left us," she said.
The square footage part of the fee works on a tiered rate: Properties measuring up to 499 square feet would be charged $100; 500 to 999 square feet, $125; 1,000 to 1,999 square feet, $175; 2,000 to 2,999 square feet, $250; 3,000 to 3,999 square feet, $400.
Once properties hit 5,000 or more square feet the rate jumps into the thousands. Anything over 100,000 square feet would be charged $15,000, not including the $100 land fee.
District Seven Commissioner Dean Kicklighter said while it's easy to place the blame on Chatham Fire, the responsibility rests on the shoulders of property owners who haven't been paying the subscription fee.
"Some of you have been pawning off your responsibility to your neighbors," he said, noting that while he's not a fan of the government interfering in the lives of residents, in the case the county had to make a call.
Kicklighter then went over a series of calculations based on the county's millage rate compared to higher City of Savannah's rate, which includes fire service, along with how square-footage and property value plays a part in taxes.
"What we did saved your butts. We made it absolutely fair, much more fair than taxing you based on your property value. I promise you that," he said.
Commission Chairman Chester Ellis said as the county moves along there could be changes to the ordinance and encouraged residents to share their concerns with the board.
"We understand that this is a work in progress, so there are going to be times when they come back to the board and ask that we make some adjustments based upon findings and facts," he said.
"This is our first step in the water, but before we let anybody drown we're going to make sure everybody knows how to swim."
The first fire fee bill will be mailed to property owners between July 1 and Sept. 30, 2022. The fee only applies to properties that were previously billed by Chatham Emergency Services (CES), the umbrella for Chatham Fire and Chatham EMS.
How it started
Chatham Fire, formerly known as Southside Fire, is a private business that long operated on a subscription-based revenue model. The department services about 36,000 properties in the unincorporated area, but only about 28,000 of those were paying the required fire service subscription fee.
The discrepancies were found in 2019 after Chatham Fire switched billing software. Officials took their concerns to county leadership, which prompted numerous workshops, district meetings and a resident survey.
The county explored several different options, including a fire fee charged on county property tax bills, developing fire service contracts and the county forming its own fire department.
In December, commissioners approved a contract with Chatham Fire for fire protection services, making the department a vendor instead of service provider.
Under the contract, Chatham Fire ceased its fire subscription billing effective Dec. 31 and the service period for subscriptions will terminate on June 30, 2022. The department will provide customers with pro rata refunds for the portion of their paid subscription applicable to the service period after June 30, 2022.
Starting in February, Chatham Fire began providing the county with an invoice for actual fire service expenses incurred during the previous month. The department is also required to provide an annual budget to County Manager Lee Smith each March for the annual period starting July 1 along with quarterly financial and operating reports.
The contract also allows the county to appoint three members to the CES board of directors. The commissioners have appointed District 6 commissioner Aaron Whitely as well as Hugh Futrell and Angela Washington. The county must also approve any changes to the size of the CES board.
Katie Nussbaum is the city and county government reporter for the Savannah Morning News. Contact her at email@example.com. Twitter: KnussSMN
This article originally appeared on Savannah Morning News: After nearly two years, Chatham County adopts fire fee for unincorporated area