The privately operated Martinez-Columbia Fire Rescue is expected to turn over operations to the Columbia County government soon.
The department’s board of directors voted on the change Wednesday 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 from its current $300,000 to $965,000, Columbia County Administrator Scott Johnson said.
“Basically, they came to us and said, ‘We don’t know what to do,’” Johnson said, and the discussion of the department becoming a government operation began.
“The county will not and cannot absorb a more than $600,000 mid-year budget item. We had to look for other options.”
Putting the fire service under the county umbrella will lower workers compensation costs to $100,000 or less, Johnson said.
“Workers comp went up so high and Columbia County can get us insured a whole lot cheaper that we can,” Martinez-Columbia Chief Doug Cooper said. “It’s early in the process. We think it’ll be better for the firefighters. We think it’ll be better for the county and we think it’ll be better for the citizens.”
Firefighters said they learned of the pending change in emails Thursday morning.
Johnson said he plans to put together a “transition team” of county and fire department leaders to work out the details of the transition. He hopes to present a package to county commissioners in early December for approval. If all goes smoothly, Johnson expects a Jan. 1 effective date.
“We want to make more of a seamless transition,” Johnson said. “We feel like we’ve got good fire protection now and good leadership there.”
No major changes to operations or staff are expected. The department employs 142 full-time staff and 40 volunteers.
The change could bring many positive benefits for the department – including a sales tax exemption, better pensions and health insurance for personnel – all at a lower cost to taxpayers.
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.
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 fire officials have proposed turning over the department to the county. According to the News-Times archives, the fire department board approached the county as early as 1977.
Over the past several years, Cooper said, the department has aligned department policies and pay grades with the county.
“We knew one day we would have to become a county department,” Cooper said. The spike in insurance costs is the straw that broke the camel’s back, he said.
The idea of the county running the fire department was a long-range goal motivating many mergers and changes in fire services over the past decade.
The insurance cost problem was the catalyst for the change.
“Nobody expected it to be this soon. Nobody expected us to have to move so fast,” Johnson said. “Now is as good a time as any.”