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GFC raises fees for its service

COVINGTON -- The Georgia Forestry Commission is increasing its fees for service to Newton County, the first such increase since 1967.

The county contracts with the Forestry Commission for wildfire protection. Presently, GFC charges 4 cents per forested acre. Beginning July 1, that will increase to 10 cents per acre. The increase will apply statewide. The total cost to Newton County for fiscal year 2011 will be $6,813. The rate increase was figured into the county's fiscal year 2011 budget.

"We figured it's the worst possible time to go up on our rates, but we tried unsuccessfully to go up in the past and the legislators turned us down," said Mike Sapp, chief ranger for the GFC's DeKalb-Henry-Newton-Rockdale Unit. "We had to close offices and make cutbacks in a lot of areas. Finally, we got them to agree that we're not able to provide quality service if we don't go up."

GFC, which maintains an office on Access Road in Newton County, is primarily focused on controlling wildfires. Other duties include assisting landowners with firebreaks; controlling prescribed burns; providing guidance on forestry management for landowners; conducting educational programs for students and 4-H groups; and selling tree seedlings.

In addition to county funds, GFC is supported through user fees, though many of its services are free to consumers. The local unit took over the Henry County coverage area recently after that office closed; there are currently only three employees covering DeKalb, Newton, Rockdale and Henry counties, according to Sapp.

"We really do appreciate the support from the community and the county," Sapp said. "We haven't had an increase since 1967 and since that time fuel and the cost of personnel has gone up and we've been absorbing that. We know now's not a good time but we can't absorb anymore because it's affecting the quality of service we provide."