With less than a week away from the expiration date of a fire services agreement between the City of Statesboro and Bulloch County, lack of response from city leaders about the issue has county officials frustrated.
Currently, Statesboro firefighters respond to fires within a five mile radius outside the Statesboro city limits, but a new agreement approved by Bulloch County Commissioners during a called meeting Thursday could change that and eventually lead to the county taking responsibility for that area.
Known as the “fire district,” the area is covered by the Statesboro Fire Department, with the county firefighters assisting through a mutual aid agreement. But Bulloch County Manager Tom Couch said the county has been supplying the water for those fires with the county’s tanker trucks. Currently, the city of Statesboro has no tanker, he said.
Discussions with city officials regarding adjustments to the fire agreement have been unsuccessful, leading to questions about what will happen when the current fire agreement expired June 30, he said.
County volunteer firefighters are also “often as quick or faster to respond” to fires within the fire district, he said.
This can cause “logistical problems” when a county firefighter arrives first, but the city firefighter should be in command of the incident. In many cases, “we aren’t communicating correctly on fire suppression methods and the like,” he said.
County officials submitted an agreement to the city leaders, but have yet to hear a response, he told commissioners. “We have had an absence of response from them addressing our concerns.”
Couch and Statesboro City Manager Frank Parker have discussed fire issues, including modifications on services offered and tax payments to the city, he said, but the city has not committed to any agreement.
Commissioner Roy Thompson was quick to point out that there is no problem with city firefighters or their performance. “The City of Statesboro has very qualified firefighters, but so does the county,” he said.
But with the June 30 deadline approaching swiftly, commissioners are concerned, he said.
There was an offer to place a county tanker inside the city limits, with a full time and part time firefighters to man it, along with a reduction of $120,000 in the annual monies paid to the city for fire services. There was no response to the offer, he said. “Simply because of no response, I’d like to do this.”
Thompson suggested establishing a full time county fire department, and having a month-by-month agreement with Statesboro — “not a yearly agreement but one we could end any time we wanted to.”
Bulloch County Fire Chief Randy Walker said a tanker with a full time and some part time firefighters, and an engine parked at the county EMS station, in addition to support by other county volunteer firefighters, could offer the same level of fire protection for the fire district as is currently offered, “until a new facility could be built in the five mile district.”
Taking over the fire district would not affect ISO (Insurance Services Office) rates because by the time the rate changes would come into effect, the county would have everything in place so that services would keep the rates the same, he said. “It would be the same coverage as the citizens have now — better services as far as the water supply.”
Couch expressed frustration with communication between city and county leaders. “It’s a symptomatic problem we’ve been having with the city in talking to them about anything,” he said. “We can’t seem to have reasonable discussions with them. It’s very frustrating. We’re not putting down any ultimatums, we’re just trying to get answers.’
Bulloch County Public Safety Director Ted Wynn said mutual aid agreements would not change, even if the fire services agreement between the city and county did change. Both agencies would continue to assist the other, regardless, he said. “If we don’t have an agreement (regarding the fire district), we’re prepared to provide fire protection” to citizens in the five-mile district “immediately,” he said.
Thompson said ”We could start tomorrow if we had to and fire services would not be compromised. If we could get some response from the city we probably wouldn’t even be here. One party can’t negotiate.”
Commission Chairman Garrett Nevil suggested modifying a clause in the current agreement that prevents the county from making preparations to end the agreement and work towards a full time county fire department.
After further discussion, commissioners approved an agreement to be submitted today to Parker and the Statesboro City Council.
The revised proposal 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 with full-time, part-time and volunteer firefighters and the percentage of taxes paid for Statesboro fire services would be paid “on a pro-rata basis,” said Bulloch County staff attorney Jeff Akins.
If City of Statesboro officials do not give an informal letter of acceptance by June 30 and a formal response by July 5, the proposal is “off the table,” he said.
The proposed agreement was unanimously approved. Couch said he intends to discuss the matter with Parker today.
Holli Deal Bragg may be reached at (912) 489-414.