Several weeks ago The Columbia County News-Times carried an editorial concerning the divisions among the people in Columbia County relative to taxes and services received by the various sections of Columbia County. Yes, there are serious rifts in the county, and some have been caused by the so-called merger of the fire departments in the county outside of Harlem and Grovetown. Others have been caused by the push for an incorporated Martinez-Evans city that will then be consolidated with the north Columbia area.
If Pam Tucker and all her planning associates had learned an important lesson from the merger of the Appling, Leah and Winfield fire departments into North Columbia Fire and Rescue, some of the divisions could have been alleviated. For that merger, elected representatives from each of the three fire departments hammered out a plan that allowed each of the three to have equal voices in the merged department. They chose a name that favored none of the departments. They worked out the protocol needed to cover about 150 square miles of combined territory. Fire departments were maintained in every area so fire ratings for insurance purposes were kept at a six/seven.
At the first meeting concerning the merger into a Martinez/Columbia County department, a representative from Martinez-Columbia Fire and Rescue informed North Columbia that it was a "done deal." Martinez did not want our volunteer firefighters or our board of directors. They wanted our usable fire trucks, our equipment and our property.
The representative said that if our volunteer firefighters wanted a job with Martinez they could apply, but if hired, they would have to start over as rookies. It made no difference to them how much training our people had, whether they were certified as an EMT or not, how many years they had served our fire departments, or what rank they had obtained.
Our firefighters felt totally insulted. The Martinez fire chief tried to repair the breach, but offered nothing better. Our firefighters had no desire to work for anyone who had shown such disdain. They began volunteering in surrounding counties where they were respected and gladly accepted. Martinez began to realize they could not cover 150 square miles without volunteers from this area, but they had already alienated our people.
When we merged and went from paid subscriptions to county taxes to pay for fire services, North Columbia was promised much more money, equipment and repairs to our buildings than we received. In the fire study, it was recommended that we receive $40,000 per building for needed repairs. We never received it. Martinez, however, received an aerial truck that cost more than $400,000 and two chief cars. These were not included in the fire study. What we did receive was pay for one person to man each of the three stations for an eight-hour day, five days a week.
Now, they plan to man only the one firehouse at the Blanchard Community Center, but they say we must deed everything useful that we own to the county. We were maintaining six buildings and had equipment stored in other places so we could maintain our rating of six/seven. We will lose our six/seven rating for the many homes that will no longer be within a five-mile radius of a maintained fire station. These people can expect their insurance rates to skyrocket. All of our firefighters worked very hard to get our rating lower for it to be taken away now.
The firefighters, the members of the boards of directors and the Ladies' Auxiliaries had worked hard to get everything we owned. They did it without tax money, but with subscriptions and many varied fund-raisers. All departments were designated as non-profit organizations. Our boards of directors were always a combination of concerned citizens and firefighters selected by the subscribers, or this last year by the interested taxpayers. The Martinez board of directors is made up of firefighters selected by themselves. Unless things change we will have no representative or any voice in who will become a member of that board.
I am afraid that Pam Tucker, her planning associates and Martinez-Columbia Fire and Rescue have lost whatever respect and support they may have had from the North Columbia area. We do not consider this a planned merger, but a very hostile takeover. Whether they can ever repair the damage they have caused to public relations with our end of the county remains to be seen. It is to be hoped that this so-called merger will be reconsidered in a different light that would include good will, good community relations, and the will of the people involved.
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