Douglas County firefighters are facing five furlough days before the end of the year due to budget shortfalls.
And a retired Douglas County firefighter is raising concerns about whether staffing will be adequate to cover the county with firefighters on furlough.
Thomas Woodruff, who retired as a lieutenant from the Douglas County Fire Department in 2018, said mandatory furloughs mean there will only be two firefighters on a truck as opposed to the national standard of four. The county has 10 fire stations and receives approximately 18,000 calls each year, Woodruff said.
Facing a shortfall on a budget that had already been cut, the Board of Commissioners said they had no choice but to raise the millage rate 27.8% over the rollback rate last month along with employee furloughs and other budget cuts to make ends meet.
Meanwhile, two neighboring counties with populations similar in size to Douglas avoided tax-rate increases. Paulding County’s BOC cut its tax rate, and Carroll County’s BOC adopted the rollback rate — which essentially leaves its tax rate the same as it was last year. The U.S. Census estimates the populations of the counties in 2019 at 146,343 in Douglas, 119,992 in Carroll and 168,667 in Paulding.
Some commissioners blamed past administrations for the county’s financial troubles, along with the pandemic, which has hit citizens, businesses and governments across the country. Woodruff said the blame falls on the current BOC’s “wasteful spending,” which he said predates the pandemic.
Woodruff said county leaders took a $26 million Tax Anticipation Note (TAN) months before the pandemic and have been wastefully spending on projects around the county and employee salaries, such as $120,000 on three part-time assistants for part-time commissioners.
“In 2016, when we got a new commissioner and chair, the county had a surplus,” Woodruff said. “This year, not only have they spent that surplus, but they went $17 million in the hole on the budget.”
Woodruff added that every county department except for the Board of Commissioners, the Tax Commissioner’s Office and the Board of Elections have tried to help the budget shortfall.
While the county has 53 firefighters running three 24-hour shifts, Woodruff said there are 17 vacant positions that have not been filled. He said Douglas County is one of the lowest paid fire departments in the area.
“Fire stations are designed to be within eight to 10 minutes of all locations throughout the county to maintain ISO (Insurance Office) ratings and keep homeowners’ insurance rates low,” Woodruff said. “If you shut down a fire station, you don’t have a fire truck nearby. So now you have a fire truck responding from twice the distance away.”
“What we’re looking at is a fire station being shut down every day for the rest of the year,” he said.
Rick Martin, the county’s communications director, wrote in an email last week that no fire stations are going to be shut down. Martin provided a statement from the county Monday further addressing Woodruff’s allegations:
“Due to the economic impact of the COVID-19 Coronavirus pandemic, Douglas County is implementing measures to help ensure the financial stability of the county. Unfortunately, the pandemic has impacted the county significantly and as a result, the Board of Commissioners found it necessary to make a difficult personnel decision. All full time and part time government employees are subject to five furlough days. Firefighters are impacted as a result, but the public should be aware that the fire department is actively doing its best to continue serving the community. The Fire department is doing everything they can to minimize impact to public safety.”