Commerce elected officials are starting to show their frustration over delays in building an East Jackson fire station that they blame on Jackson County Board of Commissioners chairman Tom Crow.
City manager Pete Pyrzenski brought the matter up at the city council’s “work session” Monday night. While the board of commissioners, the city council and the East Jackson Fire District board all approved an agreement in March that was to lead to the construction of a new fire station, not only has Crow refused to sign the contract, but he’s also attempted to drastically modify it, Pyrzenski said.
The fire station would reportedly reduce the cost of fire insurance for people of the district who live more than five miles from the city’s downtown fire station.
While the city council was meeting, the BOC voted to table action on a new contract pending a joint meeting of the three groups.
“I make a motion that we remove this from the agenda and schedule a meeting, get everybody together and see if we can’t sit in a room and come to an agreement on this instead of passing it back and forth with emails and getting it lost in translation,” said Commissioner Chas Hardy, who lives in Commerce. “That is my motion, that we remove it from the agenda until we come to a suitable agreement that all parties agree on.”
What irks the Commerce officials is that Crow has refused to sign the contract his board approved 3-1 and, instead, has sent back to the city three different versions of a completely new contract.
Mayor Clark Hill sent a letter May 29 to Crow asking that he execute the contract, stating that he (Hill) cannot agree with the changes proposed by new contract versions and asking that Crow contact the city about his intentions “so we can communicate to the Fire Board and the residents of the Fire District.”
“When we met four or five months ago with our fire chief, representatives of the fire board and the commissioners, the original agreement laid out what we all said we wanted,” Hill said Monday night. “All three boards have approved it. All we’re waiting on is the chairman’s signature to move forward. We’ve always said to the county, if they have a specific amendment they want made, we will take that up. So far, no specific amendments have been presented, just a new contract. The letter was kind of (our) insistence to sign the contract we have all agreed on… We should be a third of the way building the fire station now.”
Hill termed the Jackson County proposed changes as “not amendments, but brand new contracts.”
Commerce officials point out that Crow signed a 50-year contract recently for the creation of a fire district outside of Jefferson — that covered property owned by Crow — that had none of the restrictions or proposed additions Crow would impose on the Commerce-East Jackson contract.
At the BOC meeting Monday night, commissioner Bruce Yates questioned why Crow had not signed the contract that was approved in March. At that meeting, Crow voted against the contract, but it was approved by Yates, Dwain Smith and Hardy. Jim Hix wasn’t present for the March vote.
County attorney Christopher Hamilton said he’d encountered two legal problems with the signed contract. They involve how the millage rate is set for the fire district and the expense incurred by Jackson County in collecting that tax.
“The way it currently reads is that the city of Commerce and the fire district board can set the millage rate or at least tell this board what to set it at and you would be required to set it at that rate,” the attorney said. “That is in conflict with section three of the resolution to create the East Jackson Fire District, which is more in line with the fire district board and the city of Commerce would make a recommendation to this governing authority for the millage rate. Of course, we would set a millage rate that would cover the expenses of the East Jackson Fire District. The number one issue I have with it is that it appears the way it is written that the millage rate would be given to us to rubber stamp. I don’t think that is in compliance with either the resolution or with Georgia law.”
As for collection expenses, Hamilton said the enabling legislation passed in 1992 entitles the tax commissioner to levy a collection fee — as it does for the county collection of city and school taxes.
“I find it very discerning that we have a contract,” Yates said. “We have approved it and it has not become effective… The thing I don’t agree with is that we have approved it and you (Crow) haven’t signed it.”
Not surprisingly, the Commerce side has a different view.
Hill and Pryzenski claim that the contracts proposed by Crow and Hamilton would leave setting of the fire tax rate strictly up to the county. They argue that the fire tax is a county tax and should not be subject to a collection fee.
But their primary objections are not “legal” in nature. The initial agreement, they say, was that the city would provide fire services, period. The later iterations from Jackson County add additional “emergency services,” which Commerce officials believe could entail EMS services — which are currently the province of Jackson County even in the municipalities. The county also proposes that Commerce be responsible for pre-fire planning and hydrant maintenance in the district.
“The new versions are not consistent with the intent of the original contract,” Hill said. “We provide fire services. The intent in providing the fire station was to improve the delivery of fire services.”
“I don’t understand why this has to be so complicated when the one they did for Jefferson was so simple and they did the same thing,” said mayor pro tem Keith Burchett.
Yates Questions Crow
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