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County to form own fire department

Using city services to end June 30, 2008

    Bulloch County Commissioners voted Tuesday to end an agreement between the county and the City of Statesboro regarding fire services.  The Statesboro Fire Department currently serves county residents living within a five-mile radius of the city limits, and Bulloch County currently funds 25 percent of the city fire department budget.
     County officials are confident the move will benefit both city and county residents, but city officials are withholding comments until more details are ironed out.
    "We don't really have a comment,"  Statesboro City Manager George Wood said Wednesday, adding that he had not yet discussed the issue with Bulloch County Manager Tom Couch. "I don't have any knowledge of what they did."
    City and county officials will have to "renegotiate the (House Bill) 489 agreement," he said. The bill concerns intergovernmental agreements between municipalities and counties regarding services provided to citizens.
    "We still need to see how they're going to do it," he said, referring to the county's plans to form a county fire service agency and improve and expand existing volunteer fire stations. "We will sit down with them and go over the 489 agreement. You've got to amend the 489 agreement."
    Couch said Wednesday afternoon he was waiting for a return call from Wood to discuss the county's decision.
    The move "should not put a burden on the city tax payers," he said. What county officials plan to do is take over fire service for citizens living within the five-mile radius outside the city limits currently served by the Statesboro Fire Department.
    County fire districts will change, and tax payers will likely see an increase, but that increase will be offset by lower ISO  (International Standards Organization) ratings, which will lead to lower insurance premiums and possible insurance upgrades, he said.
   
Commissioners disagree with city's proposal
    Since 1985, Bulloch County has paid a percentage of the Statesboro's fire budget in exchange for city fire coverage for the five-mile radius outside the city limits. Recently city officials asked for an increase from 25 percent to 53 percent.
    "The amount the city was asking was too dramatic of an increase, and I think the (county's) solution will be more cost-effective for everyone," Couch said.
     He said county officials did not agree with the city's proposal, and he  recommended Tuesday that commissioners vote to end the agreement and focus upon creating a new county fire department in conjunction with improving the county's eight volunteer fire departments.
    "After considerable deliberation and study ... and a compelling need to improve fire services on a county wide basis ... it is in the best interest of citizens to establish professional (county) fire services to supplement volunteer fire substations," he said.
    "The county staff feels (the city's proposal) exceeds actual cost and ... has developed a preliminary plan that will be more cost-efficient..." he said.
    Commissioner Roy Thompson made a motion to accept Couch's  recommendation, and Commissioner George Jackson supported it with a  second.
    Before the unanimous vote, Jackson asked Bulloch County Public safety Director Ted Wynn about how the move may affect rescue efforts.
    "We still do rescue in the county and assist the city within the city limits," Wynn said. " (Bulloch County EMS Director Lee Eckles) will make that a part of EMS and Fire Services together."
    Wynn said Wednesday he supported the county's decision, but wanted to clarify that "there is no dissatisfaction with what the Statesboro Fire Department was doing.
    "This is about improving the fire service county wide," he said. "We have wanted to take our county volunteer services to the next level for some time. We have got to look beyond the (five mile radius) around Statesboro. Citizens deserve a higher level of service and lower ISO ratings."
    Couch said a consultant was hired over a year ago to advise county officials on fire service improvements - before Statesboro city officials asked for an increase in the amount the county paid for fire services for the five-mile radius outside the city limits.
    When the city's proposal came around and county officials considered it, the decision to form a countywide fire service agency while at the same time improving and adding to volunteer fire service seemed to be the best way to go, he said.
   
Can they do it?
   Some have voiced concern over whether Bulloch County will be able to provide a new countywide fire service by June 30, 2008, the date which county commissioners voted to end the city/county fire agreement.
    When asked whether the county will be able to meet that deadline, Couch said "Oh yeah, we will. Hey, I've seen this movie before. In Coffee County (where Couch worked previously as county administrator) this same thing happened."
    The easiest part is going to be finding and hiring a labor pool, he said.
    "It's doable," Wynn said. "I think we have some property prospects. The first step is to hire a fire chief, and I think that's what we plan to do."
    Couch said details regarding funding are still undecided, and meetings with the county tax assessor and other county leaders will be necessary before those details are worked out.
    "We think we can do it for $800 to $900 thousand a year," he said.
    Constructing additional volunteer fire stations may  take "two to five years"  but "I think we've got a grab on it," he said.
    Wynn is excited about the probability of combining fire services with EMS and rescue operations.
    "It's always been my vision to merge EMS, fire and rescue," he said.
    Both he and Couch expect work relations between city and county agencies to continue to be amiable.
    "Our intent is to continue working cooperatively with the city in mutual aid situations," Couch said. "
    "We will always assist the city as we have in the past and I believe that will be reciprocated," Wynn said.

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