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City meets with county to discuss fire issue
Tuesday's meeting between the Bulloch County Commission and the Statesboro City Council at the Bulloch County Courthouse Annex about fire department service drew a crowd, including several local firefighters. - photo by SCOTT BRYANT/staff
    Tempers flared and arguments became heated Tuesday as Statesboro City Council members met with Bulloch County Commissioners to discuss the fate of a 22-year agreement between the two governmental agencies regarding fire service to a specific area outside the Statesboro city limits.
    After a meeting that lasted four and a half hours, Bulloch County officials upped the ante on their original offer, and gave city officials until 5 p.m. Friday to come up with an answer.
    County leaders called the meeting to discuss the fire service issue and make the offer to the city to continue the partnership until the end of fiscal year 2009, instead of June 2008, which was when county commissioners originally voted to end the agreement.
    Since 1985, Bulloch County has paid 25 percent of Statesboro's city fire budget in exchange for the city serving what was referred to Tuesday as the "unincorporated fire district" - an area within a five mile radius of the city limits.
    However, last year Statesboro officials proposed the county increase the percentage to 43 percent, which would increase taxes from 1.4 mills to 2.1 mills.
    County leaders were not satisfied with the proposal and said the city would not negotiate. Commissioners voted Dec. 4 to end the agreement with the city and form a county fire department. Statesboro City Council members received the news unfavorably and City Manager George Wood said the county's vote violated House Bill 489, which concerns governmental partnerships to prevent duplication of services.
    As the meeting opened, Statesboro Mayor Bill Hatcher said "This is a real important  matter for all the citizens in our community ... (and) it is our desire to come to an amicable solution."
    Bulloch County Commission Chairman Garrett Nevil offered the county's proposal regarding the fire services - to maintain the current percentage through fiscal year 2009. That would give the county more time to plan a county fire department and would give the city time to work out its own issues, he said, referring to the proposal as "what we hope will be win, win, win negotiations for the citizens, the county and the city."
    With only five months before the fiscal year ends, "It is very important these negotiations succeed, and succeed now."
County fire department a reality
    Regardless of whether the city agrees to the county's proposal, the county plans to move ahead with forming a county-wide fire department, which would absorb the unincorporated fire district currently served by the city fire department. The county would hire a fire chief to take part in the planning stages, Couch said. The county's new proposal would extend the time needed to work out details and form plans, he said.
    "Fortunately or unfortunately, this is about money," he said Tuesday. "It's gotten to the point we both think we're right, and we've got to find a way to move beyond it."
    Couch and other county officials reiterated steps they took that led to the county's decision, including researching similar situations in other cities and counties. He also protested the city's proposal, stating it "considers revenue, but not cost of service," adding that the cost of serving the unincorporated fire district did not equal the amount of money the city wanted from the county.
    Couch also said a property tax revaluation in 2007 increased the amount of money paid to the city, but "however, the city has insisted it is not sufficient."
    He also pointed out that the tax base in the city is distorted "due to the disproportionate number of tax-exempt properties that the city doesn't collect from," including Georgia Southern University.
    At points during Couch's presentation, Hatcher shook his head in apparent disagreement.
    He asked how the county proposed to operate its fire department on the budget it has.  Couch and Bulloch County Public Safety Director Ted Wynn explained that EMS would also expand with the county fire department and EMTs would cross train, being able to handle fire suppression duties. With cross training and volunteer firefighters, " there should be enough synergy with the people (firefighters) at the station," Couch said.
    "EMS and fire personnel will boost each other," Wynn said. "EMS already goes to the fire calls."
    Hatcher pointed out that county officials have not offered a revenue structure, which he said Couch promised earlier "would be settled in a few weeks."
    "Tell us how your plan is not duplication of services," he said.
    Couch explained city fire response is different from how the county would respond to fires. "From a level of service standpoint, it is of a different nature."  The city fire department is structured for an urban setting, he said, pointing out that the Statesboro Fire Department doesn't have a tanker.
    "You won't be providing services to those areas anymore. Is there duplication of services? No," said Skip Starling, director of the National Fire Services Office, hired October 2006 to work on lowering the county's ISO (Insurance Services Office) ratings. "You can't tell me you will have six people dedicated to (specifically serving the fire district) but we can."
    Hatcher also brought up an issue he said had been misrepresented.
    "We have never indicated we consider it a burden to serve this area," he said. "And if you build a fire station next to another one, you have duplication of services."
    He referred to the county's tentative plans to place fire stations near the Kiwanis fairgrounds on Ga. 67, near the Bulloch County Public Works building on U.S. 302 North, and a temporary location next to the Bulloch County EMS building on West Grady Street.
More debate, county ups the ante
    After several minutes of debate, Bulloch County Commissioner Roy Thompson said, " We've offered you a proposal and we're waiting to see if you accept it."
    But Wood took the floor next.
    "What we want to talk about is tax equity," he said.
    After reviewing legal issues regarding House Bill 489, he said city residents paying a higher tax for the same services residents of the unincorporated fire district is unfair.
    "If we don't agree, where we're headed from here is mediation, and where we're headed from mediation is Superior Court."
    Wood said HB 489 requires mediation if two governmental agencies cannot reach an agreement regarding service provisions.  Couch has said the 1985 agreement, renewed in 1999, includes an "escape clause" if either party wants out.
    About three hours into the meeting, Nevil said "What it boils down to is we're offering a proposal to buy us some time to study this issue. This is our offer ... we believe it is equitable and fair."
    "And I would hope you would consider our proposal, which is without a doubt, equitable and fair," Hatcher countered. "And I would just beg you not to discard a fire suppression plan that has worked for 22 plus years."
    "It is pretty much a united stand, we will not raise taxes," Nevil said. "We feel it is our obligation to explore all options other than raising taxes," which he said would be necessary if the county accepted the city's proposal.
    Wood asked the county for a plan of action before the city made a decision.  "It's still in the development," Couch said.
    Nevil called a recess, and during the 30-minute break, he, Couch, Hatcher and Wood huddled together in earnest conversation.
    When the meeting reconvened, Nevil made a motion to increase the county's offer to pay about 34 percent of the city' fire budget through fiscal year 2009, which is an increase from 1.4 mils to 1.8 mils, Couch said.
    Thompson gave a second in support of the motion and the commission voted unanimously to support the offer.
    City and county officials are expected to meet Friday at 2 p.m. unless an agreement is reached beforehand.
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