Screven County Commissioners voted 4-3 Tuesday to institute a fire fee on vacant land parcels in order to be in compliance with an ordinance that has been on the books for upwards of 21 years.
Land owners in Screven County who own parcels of vacant land will see a $25 fire fee on their property tax for the 2021 tax year thanks to Tuesday’s decision.
The item was on the May agenda following previous discussion on the fire fee and the fact that the county did not assess a fee on vacant parcels even though a county ordinance passed in 2000 requires it to do so. Commissioners are also considering budget requests for the next fiscal year and the county fire chief has plans to work to lower the ISO rating for property owners out in the county. For the last several years, only properties with structures – occupied structures at that – have been paying into the county fire fund. Section 5 of Chapter 30 in Screven County’s ordinance requires, however, that the fire fee be assessed on all parcels.
Commissioner J.C. Warren initially proposed increasing the fire fee for occupied properties from $50 annually to $75 annually while also instituting a $25 fire fee on vacant properties. Currently, 4,708 properties in Screven County have structures while another 4,471 are vacant parcels and have no fire fee assessed. Together, the two increases would bring the county an extra $229,475 annually.
“I was initially against that because I didn’t want to pay more because I own more land, but at the same time, if there is a brush fire, we still got to go there and we have to charge them for that,” Warren said Tuesday.
But fellow commissioners were hesitant to increase the fee on occupied residences when the issue stems from the fire department resources allocated to vacant land brush fires. Commissioner Dixon stated that nearly 80% of the fire calls in the county are on properties with no structure, though those property owners do not pay into the fire fund for those services. Commissioner Willis echoed Dixon’s comments, saying it wasn’t necessary to increase the fee on occupied parcels right now – that the goal was to comply with the ordinance requiring all parcels to have a fire fee.
Adding $25 for vacant parcels would bring in an additional $111,775 for the county fire department each year on top of the $235,400 assessed on 4,708 parcels with structures.
Commissioner Warren amended his motion to institute the $25 fire fee on vacant parcels while leaving the occupied parcels with structures at $50 per year.
Commissioner Romero argued against paying for the lots because ‘they’re just sitting there.’ “Now they’ve got to pay $25 extra for lots just sitting there,” she said. “It’s not my fault I’ve got multiple parcels.” Romero implied that Willis was in favor of the $25 assessment because she did not own several vacant parcels.
“Everybody should pay for the service they’re receiving,” Willis said in defense of her position.
Commissioners ultimately split in their decision with Dixon, Lovett, Warren, and Willis supporting the $25 fee on vacant parcels and Boyd, Triplett, and Romero opposing the fee. The commissioners voted to revisit the issue in six months to evaluate whether or not the fire department is adequately funded or if additional increases need to be assessed.
“You do know this is a $111,00 tax increase,” Chairman Will Boyd asked at the end of the discussion.
“It’s a fee increase,” Dixon replied.
“Well, what’s a fee?” Boyd asked. “It’s a tax. I just wanted to make sure everybody understands.”
Screven County’s fire fee is still less than several counties in the area, with Bulloch County assessing $53 for residential structures (including mobile homes) and $75 for business structures while Evans County assesses $55 annually. Tattnall County is one of the few counties in the area that does not have a fire fee.