I got an inquiry recently about a question on the Republican ballot for the June 9 voting.
A man asked: what is the question concerning the fire districts in Jackson County all about and how were the local fire districts organized?
There are multiple layers to all of that.
The question about fire districts on the Republican ballot was generated by the local GOP organization. Local parties can ask non-binding questions on primary ballots if they want to do so. (The local Democratic Party didn’t ask any local questions this year, but the state Democratic Party does have some questions on their primary ballot.)
Most of the time, these party questions are designed to be used to bolster specific local agendas. Although the questions have no real power, they can be used as a marketing tool to promote a specific issue the local party wants to pursue.
With that in mind, the questions are designed to solicit a specific answer. The wording isn’t neutral, it’s pretty naked in its attempt to generate the desired results.
On the June 9 Republican ballot, there are six questions. The sixth question is this:
Do you support a consolidated fire service in Jackson County as opposed to the eleven separate districts we now have?
That is an old issue in Jackson County that dates back several decades.
Years ago, the county government didn’t want to get into the fire business. Some local towns had fire departments which had been around for many, many years. The Jefferson Fire Department, for example, dates back to the 1870s and a used fire engine that didn’t work very well.
But in the rural areas of the county, there were no fire departments. If a house or barn caught on fire, too bad. An area town department might respond, or it might not. Even if it did, it wasn’t a quick response.
In the late 1960s and 1970s, the rural areas of the county began to organize local area volunteer fire departments. To help pay for equipment, these departments would have frequent fundraisers, often with the sale of chicken plates from poultry donated by an area farmer who supported the department.
But it takes a lot of chicken to buy a fire truck, so over time, the need for money outstripped the fundraising efforts. Eventually (I don’t recall the exact year), the county agreed to allow the creation of rural fire districts in a more formal way, with elected boards which have the power to levy a small property tax rate inside their district. Those funds were to be used to buy firetrucks and other equipment.
Although the county board of commissioners is legally responsible for those fire tax rates, that board has generally allowed each local fire district to operate independently. The exception to that was a few years ago when the county’s auditor slammed the sloppy record-keeping found in some departments and the county stepped in with its budget office to do some of that paperwork and help the districts keep their finances better organized.
The one exception to that system is the West Jackson Fire District. That area’s fire district was created by the Georgia Legislature and operates totally separate from the county’s other fire districts. It is its own government and doesn’t answer to the BOC or any other local government agency.
One of the biggest impacts of all of that was that county fire districts became, as a group, a powerful local political force. Their struggle to get started and fully-funded created a kinship of common interest across the county. They were organized in training and in their political efforts to get funding.
That fireman’s network became strong and well-respected in the political community. If you wanted to get elected to a county-wide position, one of the keys was to get the fire departments behind you. (That’s still true to an extent, but the massive amount of growth has diluted that somewhat in recent years.)
But because of that political power among the fire districts, any discussion of consolidating the fire districts under a county fire department has been muted. Nobody wants to discuss that because of the backlash that would ensue.
There are two sides to that issue.
Proponents of fire district consolidation believe it would make better use of county tax dollars by having the funds allocated where they really need to be. The districts have come under fire by some for being independent kingdoms where a handful of people, or just one person, rules the department and spends the tax funds without much oversight. And there is criticism that some departments buy equipment they may not really need, shiny toys to play with at taxpayer expense.
But defenders of the current system say the small districts are more local and therefore can allocate their funding to meet local needs. Some of the more rural districts fear that if there were a consolidated department, funding would shift to the high-growth communities and leave some rural areas lagging behind, which was why the independent districts were created in the first place.
It’s interesting that the local GOP is asking this question on their ballot in light of all that history. For one thing, they risk alienating the fire districts across the county, not a politically smart move.
And for Republicans who tout local control, the fire district system is the ultimate in local control. You don’t get any closer to your citizens than through the current fire district system.
Whatever the GOP’s goal with their ballot question, it’s unlikely they will change the status quo. There was a time years ago when some kind of county-coordinated fire system should have been done, but that window has closed. The current fire districts are deeply entrenched in the county’s political fabric.
The day may come when the county is forced to step in with a county-wide, fully-paid fire department system, but that day is probably far down the road. There are bigger issues to deal with in county government today and there isn’t any sentiment for tackling the fire departments.
The ballot question is just whistling in the wind.
While large gatherings continue to be discouraged by public health officials, some modified gatherings for high school graduations and other events are being planned.
The economic hit from the virus-related shutdowns is causing high unemployment in some sectors, especially in hospitality. Some large businesses have also had employees test positive and have modified some of their operations to compensate.
The full economic hit won’t be known until later in the summer as stimulus funds and unemployment pay begins to fade if there isn’t another federal bill to pump additional dollars into the economy.
For now, local schools are planning to reopen in the fall for normal classes, but that could change if there is a resurgence of the virus in June and July. The Commerce City School System is planning to alter its calendar for next year, starting a week later and shortening the year for both teachers and students.
That move could be repeated in other area systems as the state plans to do a massive budget cut this summer, a move that will hit school systems hard since that is the largest area of state spending. A shortened school year would be one way to cut costs in local schools.
Mike Buffington is co-publisher of Mainstreet Newspapers. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org