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Statesboro-Bulloch fire committee launches in upbeat mood

Complex issues ahead for 5-mile district and beyond

Tricky questions such as where the city might put a third fire station remain in the future, but a joint city-county fire committee that met for the first time Tuesday agreed to address these in a spirit of cooperation.

The committee was created under last September's compromise between the city and county that keeps alive a five-mile fire tax district outside the city limits for five more years.

"The goal is working for the best fire protection that we can provide for the citizens in that district, and then I think it's important that the city knows the direction that the county is headed in with regards to fire projection," Bulloch County Public Safety Director Ted Wynn said.

The special district, where county property owners pay an added tax for city fire protection, has existed in various forms for more than 20 years. But it nearly expired last year while the city and county negotiated, among other things, how long to extend the agreement.

"This committee was formed as a result of some issues in the past, just to be brutally honest," Statesboro Public Safety Director Wendell Turner said, joining Wynn in Tuesday's introductory comments.

They and the other committee members agreed that "personalities or politics" should not be part of their discussions, which should be directed at improving fire service, Turner asserted.

"I think that working together, we can do the job much better than we can separately," Wynn said.

The committee consists of Wynn, Turner, Bulloch County Board of Commissioners Chairman Garrett Nevil, Statesboro Mayor Jan Moore, Bulloch County Fire Chief Christopher Ivey, Statesboro Fire Chief Tim Grams, County Commissioner Roy Thompson and City Councilman Travis Chance.

The previous agreement was for two years. In last year's discussions, city officials at first sought a much longer-term agreement, as long as 25 years, to support investments such as construction of Statesboro's third fire station in a location that could better serve county residents. But county officials sought to keep the term shorter in the absence of detailed plans from the city.

"I don't have a problem with a long-range agreement," Thompson said Tuesday. "You've just got to fill in the blanks."

Station 3

Currently, the district extends to five road miles from each of Statesboro's two fire stations. The 1.8 mill tax, or $1.80 on each assessed $1,000 in property, nets about $860,000 annually. This makes up 24 percent of the Statesboro Fire Department's $3.57 million budget for 2015.

Both the city and the county have fire departments. But the county's is primarily volunteer, with about 80 volunteer firefighters and just two full-time firefighters, the chief and assistant chief.

The city department has 48 full-time, certified firefighters. Station 2 is on Fair Road. Station 1, on Grady Street, is now in the second phase of a three-phase renovation that will make it the department's headquarters. Once this is complete, the city will look at building a Station 3, officials have said, and the committee is supposed to look at where to put it.

One possible direction, but not the only possibility, is down U.S. Highway 301 South, committee members said. New apartment complexes have added almost 4,000 beds around Highway 301 South in the past decade, Grams noted.

Complicating the decision, a new city fire station placed to serve more county residents, will extend the special tax district, defined by five-mile radiuses of the stations. That would add to the city fire fund but reduce revenue to the county, which could no longer collect its annual fire fees of $50 per home and $70 business per business in the area served by the city.

"It will have a negative impact on your funding," Turner cautioned county officials.

ISO and Long Hoses

Another complicated issue is the use of Insurance Services Office ratings as a gauge of fire protection and insurance costs.

The ISO, a private, nationwide organization whose members are insurance companies, rates areas on a 10-1 scale, with 10 meaning essentially no fire protection, and 1 the best available.

The Bulloch County Fire Department provides ratings as good as 5 in areas with water sources, but at the far ends of the county, the rating is 10.

Meanwhile, homes and other structures within the five-mile district served by the Statesboro Fire Department have an ISO rating of 3 if they are within 1,000 feet of a recognized water source, such as a hydrant or a pond with a dry hydrant. Otherwise, the district's rating is 8-B.

But the city and county are working together on "long hose lay," a technique that Wynn says could extend the ISO rating 3 radius to 3,000 feet from recognized water sources.

Under the previous agreement, the county withheld $10,000 a month from the fire district taxes. A portion of the accumulated $240,000 is being spent to buy long-hose-lay equipment and create a shared fire training facility at the firearms range.

The next agreement

Another committee goal should be to work out terms for the next agreement, Moore and Nevil said Tuesday.

"I'm grateful that the folks who signed this agreement had the wherewithal to realize that as soon as it was signed, we need to begin to look at the next one," Moore said.

Although finally approved in early September, the agreement runs through June 30, 2018. So it is already down to four years.

The agreement calls for, at least, an annual meeting in October, but the first meeting was delayed during Statesboro's city election season.

Members now plan to meet quarterly.

Chance asked county officials to provide a report of their fire protection goals for five or 10 years, to be paired with similar information from the city. Officials are also seeking information on pending changes in ISO standards. Grams, Ivey, Turner and Wynn are to cooperate on a report for the next meeting, in October.

Al Hackle may be reached at (912) 489-9454.

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