Debate continues between city, county over fire contract

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By Alice Du Pont

Quincy city commissioners met Tuesday night to discuss whether the county wants to renew its fire contract and for how long, and whether the size of response areas would be increased, a topic of much discussion in recent weeks between city and county officials. A narrow vote at the end of the discussion, 3-2, determined the outcome.

The county sent a contract to the city requesting a 60-day extension and, after an hour of discussion, the extension was approved.

"Why should we extend the contract or should we? The only thing I'm interested in is getting the money we are owed, $108,000, or (what) is due. We're beginning to play games here and I don't like games," said Commissioner Derrick Elias who, along with Commissioner Keith Dowdell, voted not to extend the contract.

Elias said he has no interest in extending the contract and resented the county summoning a city representative to their meeting on March 3. He called the county's actions "an insult."

"This is all very strange to me. In 1999 we were in the same discussion. We gave in to everything they have asked us to do over the past 13 years, since I have been in this seat. The recreation department came up and we gathered the numbers to show that 76 percent of the use of our recreation department came from county residents. They had the money and didn't do anything and we gave in," Dowdell said.

Now, he added, the city is back to a fire agreement with the county and an extension.

"We have to put our foot down and we have to do it now. If they want their fire truck back, let them have it. We've been playing ball with them and playing ball with them. It's time for us to take our ball and go home," Dowdell said.

County Commissioner Sherrie Taylor, who attended the meeting, asked the city to agree to extend the contract. The county, she said, only wants to talk about extended the contract. If, Taylor told the council, the contact extension is signed, they will receive the $108,000 the county owes the city for fire services provided since December 2008.

Quincy Mayor Andy Gay and Commissioner Finley Cook agreed that they were not pleased with the county's actions, but their concerns are with the citizens and their safety. Cook said if a favorable ISO rating is removed because Quincy is not the first responder, homeowners in the county will see their insurance rates go up 25 percent.

"I'm more concerned about the citizens than about the egos of two governments. I will vote for this one, but I'm not going to vote for another extension," Cook said.

"I agree with Commissioner Elias, but when I think about the citizens in the county, I will support the extension," Gay said.

The city wants a multi-year contract so that they know what to expect when the budget process begins in a few months. The county has an agreement with the city to pay $435,000 annually for coverage as first responder within a 5-mile radius of the fire station and as a backup responder to other areas in the county.

Last month, Elias asked that the city commission and the county commissioners meet jointly to discuss the contract and iron out any problems. But county commissioners voted to allow staff representatives from both entities to meet and come back with suggestions for a contract that both governments would accept.

Fire Chief Howard Smith made a presentation to the in commission outlining the relationship between the city and county for the past 20 years.

"For the past 20 years, the city provided fire services to certain unincorporated areas of the county. Successive contracts were executed with various changes, but each contract obligated the city to provide fire services within a 5-mike radius except for one year, in 1988, when the city was obligated to provide services from Highway 20 the the Georgia line. Also, certain communities told Insurance Service Office officials that Quincy was the first responder for their area and former Fire Chief Joyner agreed with Midway and Wetumpka to provide first responder services in 1994,” he said. ISO is the agency which rates fire protection and supplies this information to insurance carriers that use this information to determine the rate homeowners and businesses pay for fire insurance.

"We have been serving over 50 percent of the county. In 2008 we responded to 487 calls and 30 percent or 94 calls were outside the 5-mile response area. Of those 94 calls, 47 were made to areas that the city did not have a mutual aid agreement (with) nor was the city identified with ISO as a first responder. The balance of the calls, 48, were made to areas where the city is listed with ISO as a first responder. ISO rates first response to only structural fires. Midway, Gretna, Robertsville/St. John and Wetumpka ISO ratings would be lower without Quincy," Smith said.

During a Feb.17 meeting, county commissioners heard a presentation by a group of volunteer firefighters, outlining their ability to offer the same or better fire service than the city of Quincy for the same amount of money, $435,000, as the county pays now. No decision was made on the proposal, but commissioners said they would like to hear a similar proposal from the city of Quincy.

"They're pulling our strings. We have the leverage and we're not using it," Elias said.