The Great Columbia County
Fire Rate Rip Off Continues
Columbia County, FL (updated Aug 30, 2010 05:15 pm - orig. Sept 14, 2009)
Beginning in 2005 any person in Columbia County with a more than five acre homestead has been ripped off by the County Commission. The County continues to drag its feet on reviewing the fire rates for vacant land, while at the same time giving huge savings to the largest landowners in the county.
This year is no different, except that the County Manager's Annual Report gives lip service to the notion that the fire rates may need to be reviewed. (The Annual Report story is here and the Annual report is here).
This double wide on 10 acres pays the same fire assessment as Commissioner Bailey's father pays to have a home on 147 acres.
For years, the Observer has observed the unfairness of the fire rates and spoke out for change.
In Columbia County, if a person has a ten acre homestead, which is common, they are charged two fire rates: One fire rate for the first five acres (up to 5.999 acres), $77.00, and another rate for the other four acres, which the county assesses as vacant land, $69.58. The charge per acre for those four acres is $17.40 an acre.
If you were Commissioner Stephen Bailey's father, Emory Bailey, your 2009-2010 rates for vacant land would be a little different. According to the assessor's records, Mr. Bailey Sr. owns a homestead of five acres connected to 142 acres which he also owns.
Commissioner Bailey's father's fire rates go this way. He pays $77 dollars for his five acre homestead. Buried in the regulations of the county and approved yearly is a rule that allows Mr. Bailey to connect his parcels of 20; 10; 40; 40 and 32 acres, which total 142 acres. Commissioner Bailey's father pays $69.58 for his fire protection on the 142 acres. That is $00.49 (forty nine cents) an acre for fire protection. If Mr. Bailey owned another 18 acres, his total fire protection bill would not change, but his rate per acre would drop to forty three cents an acre.
The largest landowners in the county take advantage of this County Commission manufactured loophole. County Attorney Marlin Feagle and his family are one of the largest beneficiaries of the County Commission's largesse.
One of the County's largest land owners knows there is something wrong
On December 4, 2008 Lenvil Dicks, one of the county's largest land owners came before the County Commission. According to the board minutes, Mr. Dicks told the board that assessing those with a vacant parcel of 160 acres the same amount as a person with only 1/10 of an acre is simply wrong.
Mr. Dicks recalled that it used to be that the fire assessment was based on acreage, which he said was fair. He asked the Board to reconsider the way property is being assessed.
On May 5, 2009 the County Commission approved a $7,500 payment to Nabors, Giblin and Nickerson to look into the fire rates. GSG did the study.
The County Commission stonewalled the release of the letter from GSG with the results of the study for obvious reasons. Stonewalling records requests was nothing new in Columbia County.
On July 30, 2009 in a letter to County Manager Dale Williams, GSG said they used fire call data from 2005. This was the year of the first fire assessment. In that letter they recommended "that the County review its recent call data to determine whether or not the data exists to evaluate and more appropriately allocate the fire department costs to all property rate categories."
It is unknown why the CM Williams did not turn over current call data to GSG. Clearly the county had this data.
It is also not clear why the County ignored and apparently did not turn over the acreage figures compiled by the Tax Collector's office. These figures clearly pointed out the inequities in the current method of fire assessments and if used could have resulted in savings for the working families of the county.
In 2009 the Board refused to answer any question. In 2010 Columbia County's rogue commission is still refusing to answer questions.
On September 3, 2009 there was a public hearing on the special assessment for fire. The Board refused to answer any questions regarding the fire assessment. The only discussion was from Board Chairman Stephen Bailey, who was upset because it was pointed out that his father was getting a good deal on his assessment.
County Manager Dale Williams was a no show. (file photo)
County Manager Dale Williams could not answer any questions regarding the GSG letter and the fire assessment because he was not at the meeting.
During the public hearing the Observer asked Assistant County Manager, Lisa Roberts where CM Williams was. She said he was working on the budget.
On September 11th the Observer asked CM Williams if it was true that he was at a football party during the September 3, 2009 special assessment hearing.
County Manager Williams said, "I was home watching the football game."
This year's hearing is scheduled for this Thursday evening. It is unknown if the County Manager will be attending this meeting.