Statesboro and Bulloch County have extended their agreement for the Statesboro Fire Department to continue protecting the five-mile fire district outside the city limits for one more year. But negotiations for a much longer-term contract are reportedly moving forward.
Statesboro City Council approved the one-year extension of the intergovernmental agreement Tuesday evening.
"We have been working with the county for the past couple of years trying to work terms for a long-term agreement, and while we've made progress, we have not been able to get to that point where everybody feels comfortable, and we're still working out some of the specifics of that long-term agreement," Statesboro Fire Chief Tim Grams told the council.
Officially, the agreement lapsed June 30, but the Statesboro Fire Department continued to provide service to the district "for the good of the folks" while working to get the extension in front of the two governing boards, he said.
The Bulloch County Board of Commissioners had unanimously approved the extension July 2. Statesboro's mayor and council cancelled their meeting that would have occurred that day because of its proximity to the Fourth of July and to give new City Manager Charles Penny, who started work July 1, time to settle in.
Under the agreement, property owners within the district pay 1.8 mills added tax, which the county hands over to the city. In fiscal year 2018, this yielded $957,135, making up about 25 percent of the Statesboro Fire Department's total revenues, Grams reported. The district includes areas within roughly five road miles of the two SFD fire stations staffed by professional firefighters.
Longer term sought
For the past 15 years or so, the agreement has been renewed for one year to five years at a time. But since he became chief in 2010, Grams has advocated for a longer-term agreement, such as one lasting 15-25 years, he said in a memo to the mayor and council.
"Chief, can you tell me what the issues are to getting a long-term agreement?" District 1 Councilman Phil Boyum asked. "Because five years ago the county said we're going to do a long-term agreement next time, and here we are doing a one-year agreement."
City and county officials negotiating the agreement have made some headway, agreeing in principle on some things they "have not always seen eye-to-eye on," such as what the millage rate should be in the fire district relative to the city's contribution, Grams said.
Effect of ISO
The initially mixed results of a 2017 re-evaluation of Statesboro's fire protection ratings by the Insurance Services Office, or ISO, threw a kink into the progress of negotiations, Grams said.
On the 1-10 scale, where "1" represents the best available protection and a "10" no recognized public fire response, areas on Statesboro's water system in the district achieved an upgrade from a "3" to a "2." But areas served by private water systems initially received a downgraded rating.
As a result, many homeowners in those areas saw large hikes in insurance premiums. However, after working with private water system operators to certify their flow rates and devising plans to shuttle water in trucks when needed, Grams announced in June that the ISO had upgraded the rating to "a flat 2" for locations within five miles of either an SFD station or a Bulloch County Fire Department station responding under an aid agreement.
Boyum related his question to recent controversy over the renewal of the state-required Service Delivery Strategy agreement between the city and county. After both local governments retained attorneys and the city asked for a four-month extension beyond the June 30 deadline, Bulloch County commissioners Chairman Roy Thompson vowed not to sign for an extension.
"I guess my concern is that, just with this service delivery agreement the county said they wouldn't negotiate with us, Roy said he'd resign rather than sign an extension, and here they are asking us for an extension of this five-year agreement and they've started their own county fire department," Boyum said. "So what's to stop them a year from now from saying, 'We don't need to sign this agreement'?"
The city, he noted, has invested in equipment, fire station upgrades and training to serve the district.
Unrelated to SDS
Grams noted that the one-year extension in the fire agreement had been discussed long before the Service Delivery Strategy.
"The other thing that I think is very important to note is how significant that ISO classification is," Grams said. "So while I could not stand up here and guarantee you that wouldn't happen because obviously anything's possible, I would say it's unlikely for a couple of reasons."
Creating its own fire service within the five-mile district would cost the county "enormous investments" in fire trucks, stations and equipment and, in the process, the area would lose its ISO classification of "2," after residents have seen its value, Grams said.
District 3 Councilman Jeff Yawn, who has taken part in the joint fire committee meetings, also said there has been movement toward a longer-term agreement. Boyum, after saying he meant only to express his concern and not to create controversy, seconded Yawn's motion to approve the one-year extension. Like all other motions during Tuesday's meeting, it was approved 4-0, with District 2 Councilman Sam Lee Jones absent.
In fact, Bulloch County has been operating its own Fire Department for years, now with Fire Chief Chris Ivey and Fire Training Officer Ben Tapley as professional firefighters but with volunteers filling the ranks.
What county officials are planning to do is hire 12 more professional firefighters and an administrative assistant in an effort to better serve the area beyond the five-mile district. They propose to make this the county fire district and to levy a special tax there, 1.97 mills, replacing an existing fire fee.
In an interview Wednesday, County Manager Tom Couch said he is interested in at least a 10-year agreement with the city concerning the five-mile district served by the Statesboro Fire Department. The county has no intention of expanding its department to cover that district, he said.
"Absolutely not," Couch said. "I think that's been part of the positive dialogue we've had over the past year and half or two, and I think we've been very clear with our intentions. …
"We just want to engage with Statesboro so that they can do a better job of lowering the ISO in the unincorporated portion of the district, and that chance was extended, and they took it, and they did it," Couch said. "Our sole and primary focus now is to get a better ISO rating for the preponderance of the rural areas, and we're perfectly happy with the status quo of the Statesboro fire district."
Herald reporter Al Hackle may be reached at (912) 489-9458.