Half cent sales tax on Liberty Co. ballot
by Teresa Eubanks, Journal Editor
Firefighters who have struggled with faulty equipment, paid for their own training and put themselves at risk responding to calls without the proper safety gear are hoping Liberty County voters will approve a half cent sales tax that could help fix some of those problems.
“People don’t really understand what it’s all about,” said Liberty County EMS Director Melissa Peddie, whose husband, Chris, is chief of the Rock Bluff Fire Department. “It would generate revenue we don’t have and can’t provide.”
The only funding the county’s five fire departments receive is $1,000 a year each from the Liberty County Commission. Those five include the Bristol Fire Dept., which operates under the Bristol City Council. While there are grants available, Peddie said most require 50 percent in matching funds.
If passed, the half cent sales tax could generate an average of $135,000 per year, according to Hosford Fire Chief Curtis Fletcher, who asked the commission to approve the tax. Instead, they decided to let the voters decide.
The referendum that will be on the Nov. 8 ballot reads: Shall the Liberty County Board of County Commissioners adopt Ordinance 16-05 and levy a 1/2 cent sales tax on all taxable goods sold within Liberty County for a period of five years, beginning Jan. 1, 2017 and ending Jan. 1, 2022 with revenues being distributed for Emergency Fire Rescue Services within Liberty County?
Fletcher originally requested that the county commission set up the half cent sales tax for 10 years; the commission decided to limit it to five.
Voters will determine if the sales tax will be adopted.
Opponents to the half cent tax say Liberty County’s citizens already pay too much in taxes - especially landowners, who have faced the highest allowed rate of 10 mills for many years. Adding to that burden is the fact that much of the county’s land is untaxed because it belongs to state and federal agencies, including a large amount that is part of the Apalachicola National Forest.
Some critics believe the commission should look more closely at how funds are spent and be more attentive in overseeing the budgets of county offices.
But to Fletcher, it comes down to one thing: “Every time we go to a fire, people put their lives on the line. They should at least have the equipment they need to take care of themselves.”
The county has five departments, including Bristol, Hosford, Rock Bluff, Estiffnulaga and Sumatra. The Hosford department has around 10 volunteers along with a number of auxillary volunteers - mostly spouses of firefighters - who assist at the scene. As of now, the Sumatra Fire Department has but one volunteer, according to Peddie.
In the past 12 months, the Hosford VFD had 38 calls, Bristol had 25, Rock Bluff had 24, Estiffanulga had eight and Sumatra had three. Those calls are not always structure fires; volunteers are called out to assist ambulance crews and secure the scene for emergency helicopters to land and pick up patients.
Fletcher said there are many things the volunteer fire departments need to do their job, including replacing worn out hoses and trucks. Before they can work at a fire scene, firefighters must complete a 40-hour training program to become certified. “They take a class two nights a week for three months,” said Peddie, who has voluntarily taught two groups at the Emergency Operations Center in Bristol.
Firefighters don’t just need gear, they need fitted gear, she explained. “They piece together everything they can.” Fletcher said a special washer and dryer is needed to clean the gear after it’s been used at a fire scene. The washer alone cost $25,000, he said. Currently, Liberty County firefighters have been sending their gear to the Blountstown Fire Department, which has the required equipment to do the cleaning and has been generous in helping maintain their protective clothing. “Chemicals have to be extracted from the gear, which has an inner and outer shell that has to be washed separately,” he explained.
“These guys do it all free and spend their own gas to go to calls,” Peddie pointed out. “At the very least, they need a firetruck that will crank up and equipment to protect them when they go into a burning house.”