WHILE some Columbia and Richland County officials suggest they are not far apart in negotiations over a new fire contract, it can hardly be said that agreement is right around the corner; not with the chairman of Richland County Council offering a motion just last week to create a “Richland County Fire Department.”
Make no mistake about it: It would be a grave mistake for Richland to go it alone. Not only is it questionable whether the county could continue service at the current level and cost, but it would mean dismantling perhaps the most successful example of city-county cooperation. Short of a full-fledged merger, which is where this should ultimately end up, the operation is as seamless as it gets and has improved protection and markedly lower insurance rates.
Unfortunately, city and county leaders don’t act as though they understand the import of this partnership. How else to explain dragging their feet for two years without renewing this pivotal agreement?
It’s encouraging that they finally have a proposal on the table. And despite City Council completely rewriting the county’s initial proposal, city and county officials suggest there is very little disagreement. Mayor Steve Benjamin wrote a letter pointing out how much the two governments agree, which County Councilman Greg Pearce, chair of the county’s fire committee, called “encouraging.”
But nothing matters until the deal is inked.
Richland County, which contributes $19 million of the system’s $37 million annual budget, wants more oversight and accountability through a proposed city-county fire committee to review operations and advise the fire chief on policies, planning and budgets. It also wants input in hiring and evaluating the chief, a system to track how funds are used, an inventory of equipment and improved volunteer recruitment, retention and training.
While Richland’s draft of the agreement says the county would have authority over fire service outside Columbia, the city wants the county to give it that authority. Columbia also wants the county to share expenses in a way the city feels is more equitable, particularly for a 30-person joint command staff and senior personnel. Understandably, the city also wants it to be clear that the fire chief, a city employee, runs the system.
The county, driven in part by an audit suggesting the need for improved accounting and record keeping, has every right to demand more oversight and accountability; no doubt that city has — or should have — the same concerns. And the city is correct in that there must be a clear understanding about who is in charge of command and control; that’s the fire chief.
Frankly, we aren’t sure just how close or far apart the two governments are. But we see no reason, regardless of their differences, for prolonged negotiations. While it’s imperative that outstanding questions get answered — Are county personnel, equipment and funds properly used and accounted for? Is the city adequately recruiting and training county volunteers? Is the city paying more than its fair share for command staff? — the two bodies must not lose sight of the bigger picture: This system works. Get the deal done.