Privately operated Martinez-Columbia Fire Rescue soon is expected to turn over operations to the Columbia County government.
The department’s board of directors voted on the change Wednesday night after preliminary discussions with county officials, said board Chairman Wayne Kent.
“We look at it as a very positive step forward for the fire department,” Kent said, adding that nothing is expected to change in terms of salaries and staffing.
The change is driven by an expected increase in workers compensation insurance for 2013 that would have tripled the expense for the department to $900,000 from its current $300,000, Columbia County Administrator Scott Johnson said.
“Basically, they came to us and said, ‘We don’t know what to do,’” Johnson said, and the takeover discussion began.
Putting the personnel of the fire service under the county umbrella will lower the workers comp costs to about $100,000, Johnson said.
Firefighters said they learned of the pending takeover in emails Thursday morning.
“I’m going to put together a transition team to work out all the details,” Johnson said. Commissioners have not yet voted to approve the takeover, he added.
The department started as the Martinez Volunteer Fire Department in 1958 and operated with a donated state forestry service tanker from a temporary building on Washington Road, across from what is now West Town Shopping Center.
Services were provided to county residents on a private subscription basis until 2006, when the county instituted a separate fire tax that now pays for the approximately $10 million annual cost of contracting with the fire service.
It’s not the first time a county takeover of the service has been contemplated. According to The News-Times archives, the board of the privately operated department has approached the county before as early as 1977.