I-TEAM: Aiken residents claim sticker shock over fire rate increase

Published: Oct. 26, 2020 at 6:22 PM EDT
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AUGUSTA, Ga. (WRDW/WAGT) - Aiken City Council is righting a wrong after we began investigating skyrocketing suburban fire fees.

The council and even the mayor apologized after bills went up 300 to 400 percent. They’re expected to officially vote to change them back.

We combed through documents and emails between city leaders. We also spoke with the city manager to as how this was pushed through in the first place -- especially when it comes to the timing. We know the fee hike was discussed in May and June. City council approved it unanimously. By July -- that 400 percent spike takes effect.

At the same time, another spike was also happening: COVID-19 cases in South Carolina.

“Maybe the timing was convenient for them, and not so much for us,” Aiken resident Marjorie Talbot said.

Residents say they learned about it in October -- months after the council’s decision.

Take Martin McCrum’s quarterly bill for example -- it jumped from $28.75 to $135. Annually, that means $540 instead of $115.

“Well, at first I thought I read it wrong,” Talbot said.

“Where have you seen an increase like that?” Ron McAlexander said.

“My wife called the city council to try to find out what was going on,” Carnes said.

“It came out in a letter. You should have received it in June,” McCrum said.

“Yeah, I didn’t receive a letter in June either,” Talbot said.

All 5 of these neighbors live outside of Aiken city limits but inside an Aiken fire district. While that sounds like a unique situation, we found it’s not.

Aiken Fire is actually responsible for more miles outside city limits -- 37.5 miles -- than inside -- 21 miles. It does mean fewer people -- more than 20,000 vs 6,000 -- because lots are larger.

“We’ve been here over 30 years,” Carnes said.

The neighbors we all interviewed had been in the same fire district for over 30 years.

“The only change is the price,” Carnes said.

So why did the price change?

We found it was Aiken City Manager Stuart Bedenbaugh who suggested it. A fee tied to the value of your property -- rather than the flat rate.

We combed through city council minutes from may and found Bedenbaugh told the council, “We are not recommending a rate increase” and “This rate adjustment is meant for standardization, not a windfall -- being able to get our suburban fire fees on the county tax bill would help us with the collection of the fees.”

But still, suburban fire bills shot right up. We also obtained emails between city leaders about fire fees in the last several years. One document in that stack is a memo from April.

Bedenbaugh found more than 500 additional properties to bill, possibly generating an extra $150,000. He also suggested billing vacant land and vacant commercial properties for fire coverage for an extra $80,000. But the biggest return, he wrote, would come from adding the fee to the county tax bill. It made property owners pay the city fee with their annual county taxes. Bedenbaugh hoped that would force the 30 percent ignoring the fees to pay them and netting at least another $240,000.

We found rates also went up back in 2017. In an email from June of that year, the finance director writing Bedenbaugh, “I thought you did a good job of articulating it was for the public safety improvements (officers, dispatchers, and new HQ).”

The new, multi-million dollar public safety headquarters opened its doors in 2019. It houses 911 dispatch, four fire station bays, and the police force. Suburban fire fees do not include police protection. If a 2017 bump in just fire fees helped police and fire, as the email suggests, does this recent bump fund both?

“I appreciate the fact to address that,” Bedenbaugh said. “That is a very good point.”

We went straight to Bedenbaugh.

“We are financing and paying for that solely from revenues that are not related to the general fund or these fire fees that revenue comes exclusively from in city residents,” Bedenbaugh said.

We sat down with him after the city council had a change of heart.

Internal emails show complaints claiming, “taxation without representation.” City employees in other departments noting they were “Getting a lot of calls about fire fees.” Customers also said they were “not notified.”

“Well, we had advertised public hearings in may in June for the rates. Also, letters were sent out in the July bills indicating that a rate adjustment was coming forward,” Bedenbaugh said.

But what about those who say they never got the letter?

“Okay, I can’t speak for that in that I didn’t certainly verify all of the letters,” Bedenbaugh said. “I spoke to some folks that did get a letter. It was to be inserted in the bills that went out around July 1. The next bill would have had the rate increase.”

So what happens if people don’t pay? A couple of things, including garnishment. But has that ever happened?

“We’ve not pursued that before,” Bedenbaugh said.

“The nastiest of which is they’ll notify my insurance company and cancel my insurance,” McAlexander said.

It looks like that was going to be the plan, according to a June 11 email, the assistant city manager sent the fire chief and police chief about these new fees.

“I would like to notify insurance companies with a list of non-paying customers each year, but want to say it all nicely.” She also tells another city employee, “if unpaid, we will pursue collections” in this internal email from October 2019.

As for the new fees, it looks like those probably won’t apply. A couple of weeks ago, Mayor Rick Osbon apologized for the spike.

“When you make a mistake, you own it and you fix it,” Osbon said.

But for the neighbors, at least some damage is done -- feeling left out of a process and meetings they weren’t comfortable with in the first place.

“You know, people are scared to go to those things because of the COIVD-19,” Talbot said.

“Gosh, I hate that people believe that, but that is not the case,” Bedenbaugh said.

What is the case is that the bills are expected to go back to what they were pre-pandemic and pre-rate hike.

But it’s important to note, the neighbors don’t mind an increase. They just want it not to jump several hundred percent.

“It was like, going back into the history books about the Boston Tea Party,” McAlexander said. “Seriously.”

The final vote was originally supposed to come in November, but the council fast-tracked it. In a meeting on October 26, the Aiken City Council voted to change suburban fire fees back to the amount set prior to the recent rate increase.

Bedenbaugh says they may have to look at another increase in the future because fire protection is expensive. But there is likely to be lots more discussion and advance warning.

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