Meeting to discuss Demorest fire services merger postponed

Demorest City Manager Kim Simonds says the previously planned meeting scheduled tonight to discuss merging the Habersham County and Demorest Fire Services has been postponed.

“Unfortunately, due to COVID-19 considerations, the County has decided to reschedule the presentation,” Simonds wrote in an email sent to Now Habersham. “We are disappointed but look forward to hearing the presentation in the future.”

The Demorest City Council also was scheduled to discuss the city’s response to the coronavirus. The city sent out a community alert late this afternoon notifying residents that meeting, too, has been canceled “due to concerns over the COVID-19 crisis.”

In her email, Simonds took issue with a letter to the editor Now Habersham published this morning regarding the proposed fire services merger. She provided a “short version of the proposal” which you can access here.

Demorest Mayor Rick Austin publicly has stated his opposition to the plan. Prior to the county’s decision today to postpone the meeting, Austin had asked the city council not to hold any further discussions on the matter while the county and state remain under public health states of emergency. Upon learning the meeting will be delayed, he issued the following statement to Now Habersham:

“I am appreciative of the County Manager and Commissioners for their decision to postpone their attendance to our city meeting. The health and safety of our residents is of utmost importance. Likewise, the ability of the public to be able to participate in an open meeting is also of utmost importance. I respectfully asked our Council to consider postponement last week. I am hopeful that we can wait until the State of Emergency is lifted before considering a matter of this magnitude. Our focus should remain on the crisis at hand at this time.”

The timing of the since-abandoned meeting was questionable given the county’s stay at home orders and the fact that the Demorest City Council is down one member [Bruce Harkness resigned to run for county commission].

The Demorest Fire Department went from an all-volunteer to paid fire service in 2015. (DFD)

Supporters of the plan say it would save Demorest money by removing fire department salaries, operating and maintenance expenses from the budget. Those opposed argue the city would be giving away over a million dollars worth of equipment and property that Demorest taxpayers have invested in. They say giving Habersham County control of Demorest’s fire service also could lead to higher insurance rates for city homeowners and businesses.

Demorest moved from an all-volunteer to a paid fire department in 2015. Since then, the city’s ISO rating has improved from a 5 to a 3. The county’s current ISO rating is 5. Insurance companies use those ratings to set premiums. Generally, the lower the rating, the lower the insurance cost.

Before transitioning to a paid fire service, the Demorest City Council explored contracting fire services with the City of Cornelia but that effort was eventually dropped.

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