Cherokee County Board of Commissioners Chairman Buzz Ahrens and Commissioner Harry Johnston both turned out to the council’s meeting Thursday, in the wake of criticism from council members on a potential agreement for the consolidation recently released by the county.
Debate on how to best construct new fire stations in Canton has ripped through the city for months. It escalated when a $6 million bond referendum to fund three new fire stations in the city was struck down by voters in March.
Earlier this week, County Manager Jerry Cooper said he began to finalize the potential agreement for the county to take over the city’s fire services and construct two stations in Canton after the failure of the “fire bond,” as it was called.
These stations are two of the same planned for funding by the voter-rejected bond referendum, one in the Laurel Canyon area and one near Canton Marketplace.
In return for the county constructing and running these stations, Canton would turn over $500,000 in funds from its 2012 SPLOST and property owned by the city, originally planned for construction of the same stations, under the county’s proposed plan. Millage rates paid by Canton residents for fire services would also change.
The current rate charged to homeowners in Canton for fire services is approximately 3 mills. These fees would be eliminated and replaced by the new rate from Cherokee County, which according to the potential agreement would be 3.394 mills
Council members said during Thursday’s meeting that the agreement was not right for Canton taxpayers.
“(It) is totally one-sided and a bad deal for us,” Councilman Bill Bryan said.
Councilman John Beresford, one of council’s strongest voices against consolidation, had a resolution on Thursday’s agenda, which if passed would have ended all discussion within the council on consolidation with Cherokee County, until the county presented a formal proposal.
Beresford said earlier this week that the resolution was drawn up before he’d heard that the county had done just that, releasing a document late last week, which detailed the county’s offer to take over Canton’s fire department.
Unmoved by the county’s proposal, Beresford said, during Thursday’s meeting that he still wished to discuss dropping the consolidation conversation.
But since the council’s lone proponent of consolidation, Glen Cummins, was absent, Beresford chose to postpone the discussion until the city council’s next meeting.
“It’s only fair,” Beresford said to give Cummins a chance to respond to the resolution.
The council’s discussion on the county’s new consolidation plan lasted nearly an hour and was mostly negative.
During the talk, council members frequently made reference to Ahrens, who sat a few rows back in the audience, quietly listening.
Eventually, the council had a vote to ask Ahrens and Johnston to speak. The vote passed with only Councilman Bob Rush and Beresford against it.
Ahrens spoke first and answered concerns laid out by the council over the proposed agreement.
One of the principle issues council members like Beresford and Bill Bryan had with the agreement was the mention of ambulances.
In the summary of the county’s plan, it states that each of the new fire stations would be equipped with an ambulance squad.
Throughout the debate on consolidation, many have listed ambulances housed at Cherokee County fire stations as a benefit.
But Beresford said this is a moot point since state law dictates that counties, not cities, are responsible for ambulance services.
Council members also said that first responders to EMS calls are often firefighters.
But with the county fire department, those fire trucks have paramedics inside, Ahrens said.
“If it’s a fire truck going to an EMS call first, they’ve got paramedics on there,” he said. “We are saving lives every single day.”
Ahrens said despite the criticisms he was pleased with the council’s discussion.
“Speaking personally, I think we began negotiating tonight. We put a document in front of you and responded responsibly, with some very key points. And I think it would be prudent for us ... to get together and talk about it.”
Johnston began his comments to the council by saying that he and his fellow county officials were aware that the decision of whether or not to consolidate was up to the city of Canton.
“The county’s not trying to push this on you guys,” he said. “We are simply making an offer that we think is in the best interest of both city and county citizens. But (it) is your choice, not ours. And we don’t have any fantasy that it’s our choice. We don’t mean to meddle in your business except to the extent you’ve expressed interest.”
In other conversation about Canton fire services Thursday, the council also voted 5-0, with Cummins absent, to pay about $14,000 for a study conducted by a third party agency into how the city could best outfit itself with three new fire stations. Consolidation will not be one of the options explored by the study.
Mayor Gene Hobgood, one of Canton’s most receptive officials to the idea of consolidation with the county, also announced that he would be having a series of town hall meetings to get public input on the possibility.