After finally agreeing with Columbia County officials on how much Harlem and Grovetown fire departments would be paid to service the unincorporated areas of their districts, city officials still are hesitant to sign the newest contract sealing the deal.
County officials for several months have been working to change the county to a tax-supported system that pays the county's private and municipal departments for fire protection. In the past, fire services have been supported by voluntary subscription fees.
The county already has signed monthly payment agreements with the Martinez and North Columbia fire departments. Those interim agreements will run through the end of August, said Pam Tucker, the county's Emergency Services Division director.
The only remaining holdouts to the changeover are the two municipal fire departments in Grovetown and Harlem, where city officials want to continue to provide fire service within their city limits but to be paid for serving traditional subscribers outside the cities.
At a meeting of city and county officials last week, county officials presented the cities with two options: being paid on a per-call basis, or receiving a flat monthly rate for providing fire service to the unincorporated areas.
All parties agreed the county would pay $532 per call in the unincorporated area to each city department. But city officials are still skeptical of the newest contract, mainly because of its complexity.
"I don't feel too good about it," said Grovetown Mayor Dennis Trudeau. "They have got so many reports we have to make - monthly reports, quarterly reports. Then, if we spend a dime in the city, then use it out there in the county, we have to reimburse the county. I have got serious reservations about it. The numbers are fine. It is just the other parts of the contract we don't like."
According to Tucker, the reports aren't much more work.
"Really all they have to do is (photocopy) the fire and medical calls that they already do when they go on a call," Tucker said. "That's all. It's like an invoice for payment."
Harlem City Councilman John Thigpen agreed that the number is workable, but it is the contract details that worry him.
"All of our agreements are of that same standard ... It is just to cover all the legal aspects," Tucker said. "It is pretty typical of all of our agreements. You know it sounds simple in the discussion, 'Yeah, we'll pay $532 per call.' But there still has to be the other elements, the legal elements, and that is done by the county attorney."
Another of Thigpen's major concerns is that signing the contract will turn over control of the department to the county.
"I don't know if we are getting anywhere." Thigpen said. "It does not look favorable for the city, that is what concerns me.
Harlem City Council will discuss the contract at a Thursday night work session and will make a final decision on whether to sign the contract at its next regular council meeting.
Trudeau said he and the members of Grovetown City Council are reading over the contract and will make their final decision Monday at the city council meeting.
The Board of Commissioners has scheduled a special called meeting April 13 where approval of the contract is on the agenda. If approved, then the agreement will be presented to the city officials.
The contracts with the cities need to be settled before May when the county needs to finalize its 1-cent sales tax referendum ballot. With the county taking over fire service funding, fire departments' buildings and equipment will be eligible for funding from the penny tax.
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