Protecting firefighters' jobs became the focal point of the final subscribers meeting of the Martinez Fire Department on Tuesday.
The Columbia County Board of Commissioners voted Dec. 12 to fund county fire service with tax revenue instead of subscription fees collected by the private departments. Some subscribers believe the new tax-based funding system is the first step toward creating a countywide fire department.
Nearly 50 subscribers attended the meeting at the fire department's headquarters on Washington Road.
Martinez fire official Jim Champion proposed to grant board members the authority to negotiate the turning over of assets - fire trucks, equipment, land and fire houses - if the county decides to create its own fire department.
Subscribers and firefighters also asked that the amendment include forcing the county to hire all of Martinez's firefighters as a condition of taking the assets.
Board President Mort Lindner said the amendment could not include a transfer of personnel since the fire department doesn't own the personnel.
He said the amendment would give the board the leverage it needs to negotiate with the county to employ Martinez firefighters in exchange for equipment and land.
"If you look at the history of the board, we've always looked after our personnel," Lindner said.
Martinez Fire Department Chief Doug Cooper called the amendment hypothetical, saying he doesn't believe the county has any intention of creating its own fire department. He said the amendment is a means of protecting the jobs of the more than 50 full-time firefighters in Martinez.
"We've always had a good relationship with the county," he said. "I believe the county will do right by us."
The county is negotiating with fire officials to contract fire service with the existing departments.
The Martinez Fire Department is looking to retain an attorney to advise on any necessary by-law changes once the department is officially funded by taxpayers and not subscribers in April.
Fire department administrator David Butler presented an almost $4 million budget for 2004 to meeting attendees. More than half of the budget will be used for salaries.
Although it is comprised of mostly volunteers, the Martinez Fire Department employs more full-time firefighters than any other county department. Butler said the department intends to hire five firefighters in the coming year.
The department also plans to receive a new, 95-foot aerial truck later this month and move it to the department's new headquarters at Robert's Field in March. Some of the money will be used to buy two new cars, including a new vehicle for Cooper and another for general use.
At the meeting, Cooper also presented the Firefighter of the Year Award to department chaplain Richard Thigpen for his work in creating a critical support team.
In 2003, Thigpen recruited 23 ministers and peer counselors to counsel family members and friends who lost a loved one to fire, car accident or other tragedy the fire department might respond to.
"It's the kind of situation where you hope you don't have to put these men and women to work," Thigpen said. "But when you need them, they are very capable and do a wonderful job."
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