GVW Fire Department's request for higher fire fees doesn't have County Council support

·5 min read

Jun. 3—The Graniteville-Vaucluse-Warrenville Fire Department won't be getting the substantial increases in fire fees it has requested, based on telephone interviews conducted by the Aiken Standard with all nine members of Aiken County Council.

In general, the elected officials believe the amounts being sought are excessive.

"I think the GVW fire fees as presented will not pass muster with Council at this point," said County Council Chairman Gary Bunker.

Four County Council members — Danny Feagin, Sandy Haskell, Phil Napier and Willar Hightower — represent areas that include portions of the GVW fire district.

Bunker plans to follow their lead in making his own decision about the matter.

With issues that have the most impact on certain parts of county, "Council normally puts weight on the opinion of the resident Council members," Bunker said. "If they're going to go no, I'm going to go no."

Feagin, Haskell, Napier and Hightower all told the Aiken Standard that they don't support GVW's proposed hikes.

"What they are asking for is just too extreme," said Feagin, who represents District 3.

The views of County Council's other members — Camille Furgiuele, Kelley Mobley, Andrew Siders and Kathy Rawls — are similar.

"I totally respect what these guys do day in and day out," said Siders, who represents District 7, of GVW's firefighters. "They are sorely needed in their communities, and they hold a prominent place in their communities and with Council. But I feel that the request is over and above what is needed."

County Council is in the process of finalizing the county's budget for fiscal year 2021-2022.

Fire fees for all the volunteer fire departments in the county will be included in it, and they need County Council's blessing to take effect as proposed.

"Council has the full authority to accept, reject or amend the fee rates as Council desires," Bunker said. "Council is the only one that can set the rates."

County Council unanimously approved the second reading of the ordinance to establish the budget during its June 1 meeting.

The ordinance's third and final reading is scheduled for June 15.

Also during the June 1 meeting, GVW's plan for fire fee increases was discussed during a public hearing on the budget ordinance. Several residents of the GVW fire district spoke out against the hikes, and GVW Chief Alan Kneece talked about the reasons why his department wanted them.

After the meeting and the executive session that followed, County Council reviewed all the fire fee proposals it had received so far during a budget work session.

GVW's request was the only one that raised any significant concerns, Bunker said, even though there were some other proposals for changes from the 2020-2021 fiscal year fees.

"About a third of them (the fire departments)" still haven't submitted their fire fee rates yet, Bunker said.

"It didn't come as any surprise that the majority of the discussion at the budget work session was about GVW," he added.

Under GVW's proposed fire fee schedule, the $50 flat rate for properties with homes would increase to $60 for those with the lowest value and $300 for those with the highest value. The fees in between range from $90 to $270.

There currently are no fire fees for unimproved property, but the GVW fire department would like to charge $35 for nonagricultural land and $50 for agricultural land.

The fee for mobile homes would be $50.

Kneece said during County Council's June 1 meeting that GVW would use the money from the fee increases for a variety of purposes, including the purchase of a 100-foot ladder truck and the construction of two additional fire stations.

GVW has only one part-time employee now.

Haskell, who represents District 5, said he had spoken to Kneece since the meeting and had praised him for his "forward thinking."

But the Haskell also told the fire chief that GVW needed to "take another look" at its request and "maybe revise" its aggressive approach.

"If they needed to go up $10 a house or $20 a house or $30 a house, OK, we (County Council) can live with that," Haskell said. "But when you take a fire fee from $50 up to $300, that kind of increase just doesn't sit well."

Hightower, who represents District 8, described GVW's fire fees proposal as "out of line."

"No. 1, the rates are too high, too quick," he said. "And the other thing is the rates are unfair. The rate for a (small, unimproved) lot is the same thing as the rate for a guy who owns 100 (unimproved) acres."

Napier, who was very vocal in his criticism of GVW's proposal during County Council's June 1 meeting, also doesn't like the fact that the owners of small, unimproved pieces of property and the owners of much larger unimproved parcels of land would pay the same fee.

Napier represents District 6.

Furgiuele, who represents District 2, said GVW has "a well-laid-out plan for the future," but should spread out the fire fee increases over four or five years.

"I would love them to go back and rework those numbers and present to us a plan that would end up with those rates (taking effect) over a period of time," she concluded.

The Aiken Standard contacted Kneece, but when reached by telephone Wednesday, he said he couldn't talk because he was working.

Kneece didn't respond to a voicemail request for an interview that was left on his phone Thursday morning prior to the publication deadline for this story.