The Glynn County Fire Department may have some difficulty paying the bills in the coming years.

The department is expected to go into the next fiscal year with a $616,000 deficit, according to interim Chief Financial Officer Tamara Munson.

Overall, the department’s expenses dropped, she explained to the Glynn County Commission during a special called meeting on Thursday. The commission gathered specifically to discuss a proposed budget for the fiscal year 2019-2020.

The problem arose because the department’s revenue dropped as well, in large part due to the county diverting the insurance premium tax that once went to the fire fund. It’s now going to the Glynn County Police Department’s new fund to cover for a drop in overall tax revenue.

“There are four reasons why we had to fund with (reserves) this year, and we did not in the past. The first reason is the insurance premium tax,” Munson said. “... The second reason was there was $175,000 worth of (promotions) for the fire department this year, so that caused an increase in personnel costs ... in addition to the (cost of living adjustment). The SAFER grant, also, will cause a $70,000 increase this year.”

The department could close most of the $616,000 gap by paying off two fire trucks. Annual debt payments come out to around $600,000, but paying them off would cost around $4 million in total. The money could either come from the $4 million in the fire department’s reserves or out of the county’s $19 million in undesignated funds, Munson explained.

Once the county decides how to tackle that, it will have to figure out what to do with 15 firefighters hired using SAFER grant money.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency awarded the SAFER grant — Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response — to Glynn County in 2017. It covered roughly two thirds of the salaries and training for 15 firefighters over three years.

In the third year of the grant, fiscal year 2020-2021, it will cover around 65 percent and end in March 2021, when the county would have to pay the full $60,000 a month in salaries.

“If those positions are not eliminated at the end of March, the cost to the county would go up significantly because we would bear 100 percent of the cost of those 15 firefighters,” Munson said.

Retaining all 15 firefighters would cost around $1 million a year, she said.

Munson and commissioner Peter Murphy said they recalled the grant being more of a recruitment tool than anything.

“There might have been the anticipation of a significant enough attrition during that period of time that these 15 positions would just fill attrition, and we’d just stay firefighter neutral,” Murphy said.

It wasn’t quite how Glynn County Fire Chief R.K. Jordan remembered it, however.

“My intent was always to add 15 personnel for safety (purposes). Actually, the year before, I requested 30 from the SAFER grant,” Jordan said. “The department is understaffed as it is.”

For an area our size, Jordan said fire departments typically assign three firefighters to an engine, while it’s not uncommon to only put two to an engine in Glynn.

“The loss of 15 people would hurt. However, I did make the statement during the grant (that) there is no requirement to retain those 15 positions, so that may be where this is coming from,” Jordan said. “I would, of course prefer to keep them.”

He couldn’t say whether or not losing the personnel will affect the county’s fire insurance rating but said he was sure it would impact public safety.

“We also have to remember that, in the same time period, our overtime has been drastically reduced,” Jordan said.

The county would not only lose firefighters but EMS personnel as well, he continued, increasing overtime costs on that end as well.

“It’s a double-edged sword,” Jordan said.

Murphy revived an old discussion about imposing the fire tax on commission chairman Mike Browning’s district.

Glynn County is composed of six tax districts, designated in county documents as District 1, the city of Brunswick; District 2, outlying areas of the county; District 3, the Ballard area and Blythe Island; District 4, St. Simons Island; District 5, Sea Island; and District 6, Jekyll Island. They are different from the districts used for commission and school board representation.

Browning’s district — commission District 1, tax District 2 — doesn’t pay the fire tax. As in the previous discussion, he mounted strong opposition to the idea.

“Well, if your house is assailable within five minutes of the call and they got there, you might have had real fire protection there,” Browning said. “But if you’re 15, 20 minutes, it’s gone. You really don’t have fire protection.”

Commissioner Bob Coleman, an insurance agent, backed him up. He added that residents in the outlying areas of the county pay “through the nose” for insurance.

Jordan, however, felt the district was getting enough of a benefit to warrant it.

“How many of these fires in those districts would have burnt the house down if we hadn’t stopped the grass fire, had we not stopped the fire in the neighbor’s home, had we not stopped the car fire in the garage or carport,” Jordan said. “These people do receive fire service, they do receive fire protection.”

When rating an area for insurance purposes, class 10 means the area effectively receives no fire service, Jordan explained. The worst areas in Glynn County is class 9, he said.

“They are in an area where our response time is extended,” Jordan said. “The response time on average in Tax District 2 is about twice as long as it is to the areas that we serve. They do receive a benefit from the fire department.”

Even if the county did impose a fire tax on that district, it would only bring in around $78,000 a year, Munson said.

“That would not even come close to balancing the fire fund budget,” she said.

Commissioner Allen Booker asked if maybe the commission should look at building a fire station in the area.

“You can’t build a fire station with $78,000,” said commissioner Bill Brunson.

Browning suggested looking at the fees the county charges for fire and EMS services to see if they need to be increased or restructured.

“It sounds like one thing we’ve got to do is look and make sure the fees are where they need to be,” Browning said.

Ultimately, Browning asked County Manager Alan Ours to work with other county staff members to come up with a game plan for dealing with both the $600,000 deficit and the SAFER grant employees.

The commission discussed other changes to the proposed budget, including two new positions for the tax commissioners’ office — one full- and one part-time — $150,000 for new pickleball courts, a $12,280 increase in court bailiff fees and roughly $355,000 in promotions including the fire department promotions.

Browning asked Ours to put the budget on the commission’s June 6 meeting agenda for approval.

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