PICKENS COUNTY — With the recent absorption of the Liberty Fire Department into county resources, many county residents viewed the matter as settled.
In fact, what was started in Liberty may just be the beginning.
On Thursday, Council Chairman Roy Costner, County Councilman Chris Bowers and County Attorney Ken Roper addressed members of the Greater Easley Chamber of Commerce to discuss what’s next for the area.
One of the main topics of the meeting was the county’s fire districts and their futures.
“What we have right now is 13 different fire districts — 13 different ‘kingdoms’ with everyone building up their own resources within those kingdoms,” said Costner. “But what if we had one?”
Costner said it wouldn’t be a “consolidation,” but rather a case of utilizing what the county already has and making sure the right people are in the right places.
“This is a matter of thinking forward, but still thinking conservative,” Costner said. “But rather than have a knee-jerk reaction of ‘No, that’s not how it’s done’ we need to look and see if this isn’t possible.”
Of course, if the fire districts were to be combined, the fire fees would have to be examined as well, Costner said.
“What if we went to a county wide fire millage? People panic when they hear ‘millage’ but really, it’s going to save over 85 percent in Pickens County money,” he said. “There are a lot of families that come to talk to county council and they’ll say something like ‘I live in a house worth $50,000 and I’m paying a fire fee of $180 and down in Dacusville they’re paying $98. What’s the difference? And they’re in a million dollar home.’ Maybe we need to look at a millage that’s fair and equitable across.”
County Councilman Chris Bowers said the financial problems Liberty was facing presented the County with the chance to test whether fire district restructuring would really work.
“This is an opportunity. We’ve been working on a 5-year plan and a 10-year plan when it comes to the fire districts,” said Bowers. “What happened in Liberty, this just jump-started everything.”
Liberty City Council voted earlier this month to turn over fire protection to the county starting July 1. The city’s three stations would remain open and fully staffed with the 11 firefighters becoming county employees.
When asked if the proposed combining of the fire districts had proceeded any farther than spit-balling, County Attorney Ken Roper said no, but that the plan was something the county had been looking seriously at “for years.”
“These guys (County Council) are viewing Liberty as a ‘beta test,’” said Roper. “The next move depends on how it goes — and how interested the other municipalities and districts are.”
Roper also said he doubted turning over fire protection would be something the bigger municipalities — like Easley and Pickens — would even be interested in at this time.
Currently, Easley and Pickens enjoy some of the lowest ISO ratings in the state.
“We’re going to run a lot of tests before we do anything,” said Costner. “But what it comes down to is we want to protect our people the best way we can.”