The battle to staff fire Station One in McDuffie County flared last August during budget hearings. Fire Chief Bruce Tanner led the charge to fully staff the station that -- along with Station Two at the airport -- covers about two-thirds of the county's call volume.
In recent weeks that banner has been picked up by a prominent volunteer firefighter who also hopes a new state-of-the-art station is built soon because the current Station One -- in disrepair -- sits in the path of the future bypass across from Georgia Power on Harrison Road.
Paul Watson, who donated 6.1 acres on the corner of Salem Road and Harrison Road two years ago for a new Station One to be built, made his second appearance before the county commission Tuesday night to ensure things were moving forward.
"I don't think you can afford not to staff Station One," Mr. Watson told commissioners during their April 4 work session.
County Commission Chairman Charlie Newton said the money just isn't available. Mr. Watson retorted with several local projects such as recently purchased airport hangers and the new gym at Sweetwater Park in which he thought the money could have been spent more wisely upgrading fire protection.
Mr. Watson -- who had several heated exchanges with commissioners -- contends that staffing and upgrading Station One would cost money up front but would save on insurance costs in the long run.
"We're looking at a relatively short period of time that we will be vacating a fire station," Mr. Watson told commissioners on Tuesday. "And having said that, without the engine company having a bonafide station in which to be housed in a particular zoned area, that zone will lose its fire rating or its classification."
Insurance savings is a point where Chairman Newton begs to differ. He said that for large industries and land owners the cost of an increase in taxes to fund the upgrades would not be offset by the insurance savings. He also said having a low millage rate attracts more industry, increasing the tax base.
Chairman Newton didn't, however, disagree with the urgency, only the availability of funds.
"Fire services are terribly important, and I hope we can staff Station One in the near future," he said. "It's just that right now, it doesn't do a whole lot of good to come and get sideways with us and scream at us when we don't have a good avenue for doing that."
In the meantime, Chairman Newton set up a committee to study the situation and attempt to form alternatives to fund a solution that will be acceptable to everyone. The committee consists of Chief Tanner, Assistant Chief Stephen Sewell, Commissioners Darrell Wester and Fred Favors, along with Mr. Watson.
Chief Tanner, who had trouble getting committee members together for the first meeting, has mixed feelings about Mr. Watson's appeals before the commission.
"Mr. Watson, first of all, is speaking for himself as an individual. He's not speaking for the fire services," he said. "The second thing is, while I agree with a lot of the things Mr. Watson has had to say, there are some issues where we differ."
Chief Tanner said while the number of volunteers is down, his department is still doing its job. He also added that they have been working toward a solution for some time.
"We are doing our best to provide the best fire protection for the citizens of this county that we can," he said. "We do have proposals in to the county commissioners for their consideration. I understand that our commissioners have some restrictions about how much money is available. I'm confident in the end that they'll do the right thing."