Concerned over the cost of fire protection being paid to Hall County by its residents, Oakwood officials are again discussing the possibility of a city fire department.
At an October meeting, a council member asked City Manager Stan Brown to look at a new department as part of the 2015 budget.
“It’s not as easy as saying, ‘Hey, let’s go start up a fire department.’ That’s not a foregone conclusion that we want to go down that path, but we want to find a solution,” Brown said. “This has been an issue of concern for our taxpayers for some time.”
Residents of the South Hall city continue to pay higher property taxes for Hall County fire services than residents living in unincorporated areas. As of 2013, the county charges a fire tax rate of 2.4 mills for residents who live in areas outside of Hall’s cities and 3.83 mills for residents who live in the cities, except for Gainesville, which has its own fire department. One mill is equal to $1 for each $1,000 in assessed property value. The county assesses property at 40 percent of its value.
Brown said the county determines a tax rate to cover the total cost of providing fire services. It then rolls back the unincorporated rate based on the amount of taxes on insurance premiums paid by residents it receives from the state for properties in those parts of the county.
“To address this issue, the city has informally offered to transfer its insurance premium tax payment to the county, if the county will eliminate the differential — or apply the same rollback — for the Oakwood taxpayers,” Brown said.
He said the rationale is simple.
“If that’s the reason for the rollback, if we were to just transfer to you the portion, would you give us the same rollback?” he asked.
However, the county won’t agree, he said, out of its self-interest — it would ultimately lose money.
“The county government comes ahead out leaving it as it is,” Brown said.
Why does the county come out with more money? The county doesn’t receive funds from the state for properties in incorporated cities. That money goes back to the cities — about $200,000 in Oakwood’s case.
Because the cities aren’t given the same rollback, the county ends up getting about $300,000 from Oakwood taxpayers, for a difference close to $100,00.
County officials said they are open to talks with the city.
“In terms of (a) conversation that we need to have, Oakwood would like to have with us, we’ll be open to that conversation,” Hall County Administrator Randy Knighton said.
Brown said an Oakwood fire department, although it would carry a high startup cost, could ultimately be more cost-effective if funded by a lower millage rate.
“We’re looking at the feasibility of doing something to make it more equitable, or working out something to address this inequity,” he said.
He added that the city has no qualms with the quality of the fire service.
“From my perspective, this is not at all saying there’s concern with the fire department. We’re very pleased with the job the fire department does. Chief Kimbrell and his staff do a great job. It’s a matter of what truly is fair,” he said. “From my standpoint, citizens in Oakwood are paying a higher millage rate for fire services than for other city services.”
Brown said other counties have made similar compromises.
“The way it’s done in this county is not the way it’s done everywhere — look at other counties, and they equalize the rate,” he said.
Brown said the difference in rates has been an issue for about 15 years.
Of course, Brown noted, such a move could have consequences for others.
“If we were only paying that amount, then they might say, maybe we need to bump the whole millage rate up for everybody,” he said. “It’s not a simple issue.”