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Oakwood is mulling lower fire tax options
Property tax bills are due Oct. 1 and Dec. 1
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Oakwood City Council vowed Monday night to look for ways to stop city residents having to pay a higher fire protection tax than those who live outside cities.

"I guess we can research ... whether we start a fire department, contract with another fire department or something," Councilman Ron McFarland said.

City Manager Stan Brown agreed.

"If we don't do so for our citizens, we're not representing them properly," he said.

City officials were responding to Hall County tax bills recently mailed to residents, the product of a long and contentious battle over the county's budget and how to fund an $11.5 million deficit.

The Hall County Board of Commissioners voted June 30 to approve the budget without a hike in the tax rate. Four of the five commissioners agreed, however, to a "roll-up," in a separate tax rate for fire and emergency services funds.

A roll-up is not legally considered a tax increase, because it only allows officials to raise tax rates enough to offset a loss in revenues caused by declining property values.

"A tax increase is a tax increase, regardless of the rationale or explanation," Councilman Gary Anderson said.

Brown said the county calculates fire taxes based on "what (the county) thinks (its) costs are for providing fire services."

"They look at the fact that they get a fire insurance premium for the unincorporated area, but those dollars go to the cities," he said.

"What we find is we only bring in about $150,000 to $200,000 on the insurance premium tax and yet our citizens are paying somewhere upward of $800,000 to $1 million (in fire taxes). So, it's really out of whack."

City officials produced a tax bill for an unnamed Oakwood resident that showed a fire tax owed of $119.91, while the city levies $101.51 on the same property.

"You are paying 20 percent more on (the county's) fire tax than you are city of Oakwood," Brown said.

Gainesville is the only Hall city where residents don't pay a fire tax because the city operates a fire department. The city's general fund — not a separate fire fund — covers expenses in the fire department, Chief Jon Canada has said.

Brown said one option for Oakwood is to talk to Gainesville about providing fire service, "like we've done for sewer (service)."

He didn't rule out an agreement between the county and the cities.

The parties can "sit down and ... let's talk about how (the county) gets their numbers," Brown said. "Let's see if we can't get some rational review here."

Ultimately, the council voted to authorize Brown and Mayor Lamar Scroggs to move forward on the matter with City Attorney Donnie Hunt "and come back (to the council) with some kind of report."

This year, property tax bills are due in two equal installments, with the first due by Oct. 1 and the second installment due by Dec. 1.