As Dunwoody officials study the possibility of opening a municipal fire department, some suggest it is one service the city may not be able to provide more cheaply than DeKalb County.
At the Dunwoody City Council’s July 23 meeting, Councilman Terry Nall asked the city manager to study the possibility of creating a Dunwoody Fire Department.
Nall cited increasing costs, a lack of local control and a need for more fire and emergency medical coverage as reasons to break ties with DeKalb County, which has been providing the city’s fire services since Dunwoody incorporated.
This is not the first time the city has explored the option. In 2010, the city conducted a study of fire and EMS services and chose to stay with DeKalb County.
At that time, DeKalb County’s tax rate was 2.54 mills, which would have produced $5.842 million for Dunwoody to build a fire department. According to the study, just the purchase of fire engines and other equipment would cost about $6 million. Salary and benefits for employees would have been another $5 million.
“Although DeKalb County may presently support their Fire and Rescue Department within the fire prevention tax, building the entirety of a Fire Department from the ground up will require extensive capital costs and additional personnel necessary for a standalone fire department,” the study said.
In 2011, DeKalb County’s fire prevention millage increased to 2.7 mills. In 2012, the rate was raised to 3.29 mills.
DeKalb County spokesman Burke Brennan said the increase was necessary to compensate for the decline in real estate values throughout the county. On average, the owner of a $200,000 home will pay $9 less for fire services this year, Brennan said.
“The millage rate went up slightly, but the amount it generates went down,” Brennan said. “The amount that is being raised is offset and then some by the way the tax digest goes down. While it’s true that the millage rate went up, the net effect is that the taxes homeowners are paying goes down.”
Brennan said the taxes collected in the fire district are used only to provide fire and emergency medical services.
“If Dunwoody decides to operate its own fire services there would be a loss of revenue but there would also be an offset of cost,” Brennan said. “Without having to cover Dunwoody there would be some savings. There would be a minimal adverse impact.”
Sen. Fran Millar cautioned Dunwoody officials to consider the toll the incorporation of Brookhaven and declining real estate values will take on DeKalb’s budget in the near future.
“Don’t delude yourself. Next year, DeKalb County is going to raise taxes a lot,” Millar said. “Just get ready for it because they’re going to try to get it back.”
Robert Wittenstein, a former Dunwoody councilman who studied the option of fire services for Dunwoody in the past, said he thinks the city is getting a good value from DeKalb Fire Services.
“A fire department is a very expensive thing to run,” Wittenstein said. “It would be very difficult for us to put together a comparable fire department for what they’re collecting in property taxes.”
He said a more realistic option might be to create a fire authority with Sandy Springs, which already has a fire department, though that would present other challenges.
Councilman Doug Thompson said he’s in favor of exploring a Dunwoody Fire Department, but it will have to be financially feasible.
“The thought process council has to go through is cost and level of service,” Thompson said. “Could the city of Dunwoody do an equal or better job at that price or reduce the rate we charge our citizens? It’ll come down to the numbers. At 2.5 mills, it wasn’t really worth it.”
Dunwoody spokesman Bob Mullen said the city manager will likely be ready to provide the council with an updated study by its Aug. 13 meeting.