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City approves fire services proposal

     The Statesboro City Council on Tuesday unanimously voted to approve the staff recommendation for negotiating the Fire Service Component of the service delivery agreement between the city and county. In an 11-page memo, which included the city's proposal for service within the current fire district, City Manager George Wood outlined the problem the city has with the county's plan to form their own fire department.
    The central argument, from the city's point of view, is that creating a county fire department, where all three county fire stations built well inside the existing fire district, would be a massive duplication of service. This is against the intent of Georgia House bill 489, said City Manager George Wood.
    "Once you have those two stations and they can provide a coverage area five miles around them and respond with 8-10 people per call, why would you duplicate that service?" said Wood. "There's excess capacity around the city that our stations can cover. Why duplicate that service?"
    The official code of Georgia, OCGA 36-70-20, says, "The process provided by this article is intended to minimize inefficiencies resulting from duplication of services and competition between local governments and to provide a mechanism to resolve disputes over local government service delivery, funding equity and land use. The local government service delivery process should result in the minimization of noncompatible municipal and county land use plans and in simple, concise agreement describing which local governments will provide which service in specified areas within a county and how provision of such services will be funded."
    Part of the county's plan calls for a fire station to be placed at the current EMS building - located just down the street from the downtown fire station. Wood said this is not only a duplication of service, but also inefficient and expensive.
    "And the other thing, if your going to put a fire station at the jail - the jail is adjacent to the city limits," said Wood. "If (SFD) can already cover that area and cover five miles around it, why would you put one there? That's a massive duplication."
    Another problem for the city is the inequitable funding levels between city and county residents. Currently, citizens outside the five-mile radius fire district have no line-item ad valorem tax, strictly for fire service, like people inside the fire district. The county is paying for that service from the county's general fund.
    "Since that's coming out of the county's general fund, Statesboro citizens are funding the eight districts as well," said Wood. "The 38 percent [outside the fire district] are getting a free ride. Bulloch County has underfunded for years while they've lived off the Statesboro Fire Department."
    In addition, city resident pay almost twice as much for fire service as county residents inside the district. Wood said this puts an undue tax burden on the city.
    "You can see who's paying for county fire services. It's the citizens for Statesboro," said Wood. "That's why its unfair. Are people who are getting equal service paying an equal amount for that service?"
    In Wood's proposal to the city council, he stated that under no circumstance would the city recommend reducing the current staffing levels of SFD, regardless of how negotiations turn out.
    "We built the second station for a reason. The city's is expanding, the city needs the second station and the manpower. Everything we covered has grown tremendously," said Wood.
    The city questions the logic behind putting new fire stations in an area that's already saturated with fire coverage.
    "Why not put the manpower at the station you have in Brooklet? It's one of the most rapidly growing areas in the county. It needs more fire protection. Why isn't the plan to put more manpower there?"
    Currently, Southeast Bulloch High School and the rest of Brooklet is covered by a volunteer fire department. In a letter to SFD in Jan. 2006, the Brooklet fire chief asked the city to cover the Brooklet area from Monday through Friday during the hours of 6 a.m. to 5 p.m.
    "What they're counting on is that the City of Statesboro will come," said Wood.
    Currently the city and county have a mutual aid agreement, which calls for the SFD to respond to all fire structures in Bulloch County, for which the city is reimbursed $774.33 per month. Wood and SFD Chief Dennis Merrifield agree that mutual aid agreement will have to come to an end.
    "Mutual aid is supposed to be, 'I will help you if I can.' It doesn't mean you can use me as a substitute for your own fire department, said Wood. "[The city's] grown to the point where we can't handle all of that. We're the responders for all the industrial parks as well."
    "If you'll notice, every time an article comes out in the paper, [the county] says they'll provide mutual aid, and they expect the city to do so as well.
Why would you assume that if you take $628,000 out of our budget that we'll come and put your fires out? That's a mighty big assumption."
    At the meeting, Wood and Mayor Bill Hatcher said they were surprised that the county voted to separate services.
    "We knew the county had a fire consultant, but we knew they were looking to lower ISO ratings outside the fire district - which by the way we're in full agreement with. We think there need to be fire protection outside the city. But we think it needs to be further out, not inside the current coverage areas."
    Wood summed up the city's position.
    "State law says we are to work together to develop the most cost effective system for all of the taxpayers. And so the most efficient system is to have the SFD handle the city and the district around it."




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