The committee is composed of Councilman Glen Cummins, who serves as chairman, and Councilmen John Beresford and Hooky Huffman. The three men were at odds over how to fund $5 million worth of improvements to the city’s fire services.
Beresford was set to explain his plan for the citywide fire district, which he previously said would be a fire service “assessment” modeled after the stormwater fee, with residents and businesses paying a minimum of $5.17 per month. However, he reported that he’d scrapped the plan as of 2 a.m. Thursday because of threats of litigation and a veto by the mayor.
“The word is on the street that if we approve this it will be vetoed and/or it will be litigation,” said Beresford. “Therefore, I figured, why waste my time?”
He then looked across the room at Mayor Gene Hobgood and said, “Right mayor?”
“Sounds reasonable to me,” Hobgood responded with a chuckle.
Hobgood has come out against the proposed fire fee, which he said would be inequitable and likely come into conflict with his understanding of state law due to it being based on the stormwater fee, an unrelated purpose.
To avoid legal challenges, Beresford proposed hiring Ross and Associates at a cost of $15,000 as a consultant to come up with a plan. The committee later voted 2-1 to send the proposal to the full council for consideration at the next meeting.
But Cummins — who voted against the idea — took issue with Beresford independently meeting with Huffman on the matter.
He accused the men of violating the state’s open meetings law, which he said prohibits a quorum of two of the committee’s three members from meeting without public notification.
The accusation set off a storm of back and forth shouts between the men, with other officials, including City Manager Scott Wood and Fire Chief Dean Floyd, quietly looking on. At one point Huffman stormed out of the conference room but was called back by Beresford to vote on his motion to hire a consultant.
“I’ve been working on this thing for over a year-and-a-half, trying to get our city where we can have an excellent fire department,” Beresford told Cummins. “Because of the ridiculous stuff that you’ve been pulling, rinky dinking around, got us to a point where we can’t do a thing I’m asking for.”
Cummins said that at the city manager’s request he had already met a week ago with Ross and Associates and was told that the firm had never worked on a fire service fee, that no other city has both a fee and tax for fire services, and that raising tax revenue is the best way to fund the city’s improvement projects, which include building three new fire stations.
“The only reason we’re stuck on this point is very simple,” Cummins said. “The council has decided they want to get around the senior exemption that’s granted to seniors so that they can get seniors to contribute to fire services.”
Following the meeting, Huffman said Greene County is an example of a local government that double charged residents for a project. Futhermore, had Canton raised its millage rate over the past few years like other nearby cities, it would have $2.5 million already available for the improvements, he said.
He and Beresford later acknowledged that they had conducted an illegal meeting. But Beresford said his intentions have not been directed at trying to circumvent the city’s senior exemption.
He accused the mayor of simply wanting to hand responsibility of the city fire department to the county government.
“We have never discussed trying to get around the seniors,” said Beresford.
“This whole issue of getting around the seniors was meaningless because if you went to the county, then (seniors) would be paying. What we tried to do is stay here in the city and looked at ways at doing it less for $62 and we couldn’t.”
Under Beresford’s most recent proposal modeled after the stormwater fee, residents would have paid $62.04 annually to fund fire service improvements. In total, the fee was expected to raise $1.3 million per year.
Hobgood, who largely remained silent in the meeting, said afterwards that he understands the frustration of Beresford and Huffman because their two attempts so far to get around the senior exemption have been unsuccessful.
“It seems like what we’re doing is trying to re-invent the wheel, so to speak,” he said.
“We’re trying to come up with some new way of doing something that is not tried and true by other cities and counties. Most of them would do it by having a general obligation bond referendum for new facilities. If they need more revenues, just raise the general fund millage rate. It’s as simple as that.”
The council will meet at 6 p.m. Thursday at Canton City Hall.