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City responds to county's claims
Leaders disagree on the future of the 5-mile fire district
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      With a pair of released statements Friday, the City of Statesboro responded to claims by Bulloch County officials that city leaders have been unresponsive in discussions to address a soon-to-be-expired fire services agreement.
       Statesboro City Manager Frank Parker, along with Fire Commander Tim Grams, Deputy Fire Commander Ronnie Shaw and Public Safety Director Wendell Turner, issued statements last week to address county comments, that they say were “false, malicious,” and deeply concerning.
       Only a few days remain before the June 30 expiration date of a fire services agreement between the City of Statesboro and Bulloch County to work cooperatively in addressing fires within a five-mile radius outside the Statesboro city limits — known as the five-mile fire district.
       In public discussions last week, frustrated County officials alleged that city leaders were not responsive in talks to adopt a new agreement. Bulloch County Commissioners proposed a modification to the existing mutual aid contract that would allow the county procure $120,000 of monies paid to the city for fire services, and open the door for a potential take over of the district by a full-time County Fire Department.
       “We can’t seem to have reasonable discussions with [the city],” said Bulloch County Manager Tom Couch, who claims county proposals have fallen on deaf ears at City Hall. “It is very frustrating. We’re not putting down any ultimatums; we’re just trying to get answers.”
       Parker, who acknowledges that he and Couch have engaged in conversations about fire services, said in an open letter addressed to the Statesboro Herald that the county comments are false.
       “The City of Statesboro has not received any requests from the County to change any of the fire service agreements. There has been no lack of response by City leaders, but rather just the opposite,” he said. “The City has made overtures to Bulloch County regarding the enhancement of fire service in Bulloch County, while the County has failed to provide any feedback in regard to the City’s suggestions to further the interests of the citizens of Bulloch County. It appears that the County is only interested in its own objectives, which are not in the best interest of all citizens of Bulloch County and will not increase the level of protection provided to service areas affected in the five-mile fire service region.”
       According to Parker, the informal offer made to the City of Statesboro by county commissioners to continue funding the city, but at a reduced rate of $120,000 annually, in exchange for the support of a county tanker truck and a driver is unreasonable.
       “Any change in the cost-share between the governments for the five-mile fire district would be unfair,” he said. “As the tax money collected within the five-mile fire district would likely be used outside the fire district.”
       Currently, monies paid to Statesboro for services within the five-mile area total approximately one-third of Statesboro Fire Department’s operating budget – about $900,000.
       In making a case for alterations to the current aid agreement, county officials claim county tanker trucks provide most of the water used to fight fires within the district; that county firefighters are often quicker to the scene of incidents; and, in many cases, there are logistical problems between the two parties in communicating effectively about fire suppression methods.
       County leaders also assert that Bulloch County could take responsibility of the five-mile district immediately and offer the same level of fire protection for the area as is currently provided.
       Grams, Shaw and Turner, in a joint-statement released by the Statesboro Fire Department, addressed the remarks.
       “The city currently responds with two 1,000-gallon engines to all fires within the city and the five-mile fire district.  The department also responds with two additional 1,000 gallon engines when needed, by utilizing Statesboro Fire Department Volunteers and call-back personnel,” according to the release. The water is enough to support any fire suppression operation, they said.
       The city would have acquired a 3,000-gallon tanker truck – which is used by the county – but did not pursue the purchase because of the mutual aid agreement to utilize the strengths of each department in fire service delivery.
       “One of the strengths the county had was that they already had tankers and would respond to provide additional water when needed,” said Grams. And in most cases, the water supplied by Bulloch County isn’t used for initial firefighting attacks, just “mop-up” operations, he said. 
       “The claims that Bulloch County Fire Department is ‘beating’ the Statesboro Fire Department to fire scenes in the City or five-mile fire district are absurd,” said Grams. “While there may be occasions when a Bulloch County volunteer may show up on scene, it has always been in their personal vehicle. We cannot recall a single incident when Bulloch County Fire Department has put a fire apparatus on scene in the City or five-mile fire district before Statesboro Fire Department. This is because Statesboro Fire has been able to respond to these incidents immediately with professional, highly trained career personnel without having to rely on a volunteer firefighter response as Bulloch County currently does.”
       In regard to communication concerns: “None of us have received notification of any type voicing concerns on how the Statesboro Fire Department was delivering services,” he said. “In fact, we have had nothing but positive feedback from the County Fire Chief and numerous County Volunteer Firefighters on the way Statesboro Fire Department conducts fire suppression operations.”
       City leaders, who would like to maintain the parameters of the current service agreement, do not believe Bulloch County can provide comparable fire protection services to the citizens living inside the five-mile district without city assistance.
       “Claims made by the Bulloch County Fire Chief that they would be able to provide the same level of protection utilizing mostly volunteer firefighters is debatable,” said Grams. “We are planning on three new fire stations, funded out of SPLOST, to better disperse fire protection throughout the district. The department has also made numerous adjustments to operations to better serve the community.”
       “In addition, the City is working toward adding personnel in the form of full-time, part-time, volunteers and cross-trained police officers,” he said. “All of these improvements will have a positive impact on our next ISO (Insurance Services Office) evaluation and should have a significant bearing on our Public Protection Class Rating.”
      A new proposal agreed on by County Commissioners would renew the agreement as it is now, but with a termination clause with a 30-day written notice. It would eliminate the clause preventing the county from working towards a full-time county fire department and the percentage of taxes paid for Statesboro fire services would be paid on a pro-rata basis, according to Bulloch County Staff Attorney Jeff Akins.
       According to Couch, the new proposal was presented to Parker for review Friday.
       In a media release sent out Monday, Couch said his opinion “differs greatly from Mr. Parker’s interpretation about the chain of events and lack of responsiveness by the City or County.”
       But, “both City and County fire operations are in the good hands of many capable firefighters, regardless of their status,” he said. “While I don’t know what the final outcome of the fire district issue will be, I plan to maintain a constructive, creative, and practical attitude toward resolving the issue.”
   
    Jeff Harrison can be reached at 912-489-9454
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