Officials representing the City of Statesboro say Bulloch County Commissioners’ proposal this week to renew a fire service agreement is a start, but doesn’t go far enough.
On Tuesday, the commission agreed to submit for consideration a five-year agreement regarding fire services provided by the Statesboro Fire Department to residents living in areas just outside the city limits — an area referred to as the five-mile fire district, because county residents living within a five mile radius of a Statesboro fire station are served by the city.
Statesboro officials say the new agreement, to its credit, closely resembles past contracts — that have been amenable for both parties — but feel the plan does not stretch far enough into the future.
City representatives are seeking a lengthier deal, they say, to better plan long-range improvements for the Statesboro Fire Department.
“I would like to see, at least, a
10- to 15-year agreement. I firmly believe that is well within the limits of good faith for both parties,” said Councilman Travis Chance, who has played a key role in discussions between the county and city. “A five-year is something we will have to consider, but I’d like to see it longer.”
Said Councilman Phil Boyum: “A five-year is certainly better than a one- or two-, but the fire department is looking to make major investments in infrastructure and equipment — including building a new fire station or two and adding trucks. As a councilman, I would not be serving the citizens well to make those long term investments without knowing where the funding is coming from on a long-term basis.”
Per terms of the fire services agreement, the City of Statesboro is provided monetary compensation by the county (1.8 mills in property tax money collected from residents in the five-mile fire district) in exchange for services provided.
That money plays a key role in how the Statesboro Fire Department operates and develops.
According to Statesboro City Manager Frank Parker, a long-term plan would instill confidence in the city to grow its fire department with the five-mile fire district in mind.
The length of a new agreement could be a factor in where the city locates new fire stations. A new station is scheduled to be built within the next year.
“With a shorter-term agreement, the city would be more inclined to place a new station more within the city limits, to best suit our needs here,” Parker said. “With a longer-term agreement, the city would put a station a little nearer the limits to serve, well into the future, both the five-mile district and the city.”
Statesboro officials initially floated the idea of a 25-year agreement, but that was met with hesitation by county commissioners and led to stalled discussions.
“I kind of feel like the county has latched onto this 25-year number and won’t let it go. Twenty-five years was only the initial offer. We have been open to a 10-year or 15-year agreement as well,” Chance said.
County officials have also balked at a long-term plan because the city has not fully explained long term plans for the fire department, commissioners say.
“I would say (that claim) is inaccurate. I know that I have verbalized what our plans are to commissioners, and I know that our officials have done that as well,” Chance said. “I feel we have done everything in our power to operate above board, and we have given everything we can to the county for consideration.”
According to Parker, the stumbling block in discussions — the reason why county officials are hesitant about moving forward with a longer deal — is the fact that city leaders have yet to determine the exact location for a new station.
“Talks have been very favorable. I think the city and county are mostly on the same page,” Parker said. “The next step is finding out where we will place our next fire station. I’d like to have our council set up a committee with the commissioners and work towards getting that information worked out; then, a longer-term commitment would be in the best interest of both parties.”
According to Bulloch County Manager Tom Couch, commissioners “think a five-year agreement is sufficient. The city wants to expand the fire district, (but) before we enter a 25-year agreement, we want to know where they will put a new fire station and all the other details.”
In response to commissioners’ hesitation, Boyum said: “I understand where the commissioners are coming from. I understand that they may feel they don’t have all of the information, but when you’re deciding where to put a fire station you have to start with a general idea before working down to a specific target area. And, even when an agreement is in place, no decisions will ever be made on major improvements to the Fire Department, or decisions regarding the five-mile district, without county approval — a clause in the agreement guarantees it.”
Though discussions likely will not end with the five-year agreement presented this week, Parker said he appreciates that county officials approved and submitted a proposal.
“It is great that they took some action, so now we are getting the ball rolling,” he said.
Chance said he is confident that an agreeable solution will be reached.
“We are going to work with them, get this done, and one way or another, we are going to provide the best services we can to citizens — protecting their life and property,” he said.
The current fire services agreement, a two-year contract, expires at the end of September. Both City Council and county commissioners approved a 90-day extension to the agreement in June, shortly before its original June 30 expiration date.
Jeff Harrison may be reached at (912) 489-9454.