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Newborn mulls exiting fire deal

COVINGTON - The Newborn Town Council is considering pulling its funding for Fire Station No. 6.

The full-time, paid station, located on Ga. Highway 213, opened last year and was a joint project between the county, Newborn and the city of Mansfield in an effort to provide residents in that area with adequate fire protection.

A contract approved by all three governments states that the county owns the land and structure and is charged with staffing and operating the station, while Newborn and Mansfield are obligated to pay two-thirds of operating costs of the station through proceeds from fire district property taxes and insurance premium taxes.

The property taxes come from a separate millage levied by the county to the Newborn and Mansfield fire districts. Those taxes, collected by the county annually, were previously used to fund volunteer fire services in the district but are now earmarked to fund station operations.

Insurance premium taxes are taxes collected on insurance premiums sold within a district, a percentage of which is disbursed to local governments. In 2007, Newborn received about $30,000 in insurance premium taxes, Councilwoman Wanda Cummings said.

According to the Georgia Department of Revenue, the insurance premium tax may be used for fire protection; curb-site or onsite residential or commercial garbage and solid waste collection; curbs, sidewalks and streetlights; police protection, except protection provided by the county sheriff; and other services provided by the governing authority for the benefit of residents.

Now, some members of the Newborn Council apparently don't want that money to go to the fire station.

"Some of the council persons do not feel that we should give the insurance premium tax in addition to the fire tax collected because the citizens of Newborn need to benefit from the insurance premium tax in other ways," Cummings said, pointing out that the contract allows any party to terminate the agreement with 90 days notice.

She said pulling the insurance money would not constitute reneging on the contract but would instead be "going back to the original agreement (District 1 Commissioner) Mort Ewing negotiated with Mayor (J.W.) Cummings using just the fire tax for Newborn to support the fire station.

"When it came down to the final signing, Newton County commissioners demanded we also give the insurance premium tax, which does not cover fire, it covers all insurance premiums within the city. Because of citizens thinking they would not be covered by fire protection, the council went ahead under duress and agreed to that," she said.

However, Ewing said both the Mansfield and Newborn councils had the chance to review a draft contract and make revisions before approving the final document.

He said discussion began with both mayors in early 2005 and the project took nearly two years to negotiate and plan.

"The agreement was signed and worked out over a long period of time. The cost to each city was discussed from the beginning so nothing was ever hidden," Ewing said.

Ewing said he has not been contacted by Newborn officials regarding any change of plans.

"I guess I'm a little amazed that Newborn would consider withdrawing after only having had the station open for about two months. I guess I'm a little bit dumbfounded that this discussion would even occur," he said.

While several Newborn residents told the Citizen they're worried about getting fire protection should the council move ahead with its plan, Cummings said the county is obligated to continue serving the town.

But Newborn resident Martha Ellwanger said that's a poor reason to not make good on the contract.

"I feel, and other people in Newborn that I have talked to feel the same way I do, that it is dishonorable," Ellwanger said. "We had said we'd be a part of it. The firehouse was built, our names are on the sign and then to think, 'Well, they have to come anyway,' is dishonorable. That's the best word I can come up with. As citizens of Newborn, we are proud to be a part of that new fire station. We're disappointed in our mayor and council."

Cummings said the council would like to use the insurance premium proceeds for street upkeep or to possibly purchase a garbage truck to pick up fallen limbs or a bucket truck to do in-house tree maintenance and put up Christmas decorations.

"We're just a small piece of what that fire department covers. That fire department covers citizens for a much larger area, not just for Newborn and Mansfield," Cummings said. "We shouldn't have to pay any more for fire protection than just a regular citizen."

Crystal Tatum can be reached at crystal.tatum@newtoncitizen.com.