After working for a year on an agreement with Harlem officials for the city to provide fire service to an unincorporated area south of the city, county officials refused at a Tuesday meeting to approve a contract amended by the city's attorney.
Columbia County attorney Doug Batchelor wrote in a Sept. 21 recommendation to Pam Tucker, the county Emergency and Operations director, that the proposed amendments to the contract would decrease fire service in that area, currently covered by Martinez-Columbia Fire Rescue.
Batchelor wrote that reducing the level of service would put "the county in the position of having property owners in the unincorporated areas of the county that would be served by Harlem having a lesser degree of service, even though they are paying at the same rate as all other property owners in the unincorporated areas."
The contract mirrors one with Grovetown, and Tucker said Batchelor and city attorney Barry Fleming have differing opinions.
One sticking point, Tucker said, was the city's proposed deletion of the phrase requiring firefighters to be certified and meet state standards. The amendment said the city would "strive" to meet the standards.
Harlem City Councilman John Thigpen said nearly all of the city's public safety officers are certified volunteers and the volunteer firefighters are either already certified or in process of becoming a certified volunteer firefighter in upcoming classes.
The certifications have just taken a little longer than expected to complete.
"The expectation was that Harlem would have been a little further along in their fire training and some of their programs," Tucker said. "Everything was in good faith."
Thigpen said other amendments deleting information or requirements were made because they mirrored existing city policies.
"Some if it is redundant," Thigpen said. "Some of it, we already have city policies to address it."
The city already enforces a drug policy, so a caveat required more drug testing wasn't necessary, he said.
"We have done random tests in the city before," Thigpen said. "Any kind of accident is going to require testing anyway."
The city briefly covered a pay-per-call area similar to the proposed one for about a year after the county took over fire service in 2002. City officials opted to pull back to service inside the city limits.
"We said, 'We'll provide our citizens with the best possible fire service we can provide them, and medical service,'" Thigpen said.
The county moved personnel out of a Martinez-Columbia White Road station early because of mold. Those personnel are now operating out of a new station on Louisville Road. The area south of Harlem is protected by paid and volunteer staff in the area with a fully-equipped truck kept on White Road or nearby County Line Road, Tucker said.
Service has not and will not change for residents in the area, Thigpen and Tucker agree.
"We continue to enjoy a good relationship with Harlem," Tucker said.
Thigpen said he anticipates a future agreement.
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