Fire service key issue for next mayor

Columbia's next mayor could sink or save Richland County's unified fire service, a 20-year city-county partnership that is crumbling because of increasing health care costs and allegations of financial mismanagement.

The partnership has been so successful it lowered insurance ratings throughout the county, saving homeowners $5.5 million, according to a 2007 study.

But increased health care costs and changes in how the city is required to handle retirement health insurance have made firefighting so expensive Columbia officials say they need millions of dollars more from the county to make things work.

"They used to be able to operate fine with the amount of money we were appropriating," County Councilman Greg Pearce said. "We can't reach into a pot somewhere and say, 'Oh, here's an extra million.'"

The dispute has several on County Council calling for the county to end the contract and create its own fire department - one that relies more on volunteers than full-time firefighters as a way of keeping the cost down.

The contract, which expired last year, has been temporarily extended twice. Columbia voters will choose the next mayor April 6, and the winner will take office July 1 and will be thrust into the complexities of negotiating the fire service contract.

Nearly all the candidates for mayor have said they support keeping the fire service unified.

"I would hope that you would not take a step backward and create two management teams and redundant services and at the same time not provide any better service to the residents of the county or the city," said mayoral candidate Steve Morrison, an attorney. "I think it would be incumbent on the next mayor to work hard to complete an intergovernmental agreement."

County Council members who represent mostly rural areas, like Kelvin Washington and Gwendolyn Davis Kennedy, are pushing for the county to create its own fire department.

Washington says the city's treatment of its volunteers, who serve only county areas, has driven a lot of them away and created poor morale for the volunteers who remain.

"If the city had done what they were supposed to do, we would have had a cadre of volunteers already in place," Washington said. "It was set up to fail."

Jimmie James, volunteer district chief for stations 19, 23 and 28, said a grant his volunteers received for new fire equipment went to the city's full-time firefighters.

"They have not been fair with the volunteers," James said. "They're working mostly training the city career people."

Fire Chief Bradley Anderson, who is retiring at the end of this month, said the gear was supposed to be issued to stations 19, 23 and 28 but was mistakenly given out to all of Battalion 4.

"Chief James was absolutely right about that," said Anderson, adding fire officials are in the process of fixing the mistake.

City Councilman Kirkman Finlay, who is running for mayor, said he understands why county officials believe "the city acts like we own the fire department" - a perception he says the city must change in order to save the unified fire service.

Finlay wants to create a board of directors, appointed by both governments, to oversee the department. Both governments would pay into a jointly owned fund to pay for the department.

"The most important thing we can do is keep this service together," Finlay said. "Let's create a unit that is governed by citizens appointed by both (governments) and let it really run like an efficient service."

City officials say the county needs to pay more for the administrative costs of the fire department, which are mostly paid for by city tax dollars.

Richland County pays for 20 fire stations and 216 firefighters, including 63 firefighter positions added in the past five years.

But the officers who supervise those county firefighters - and the logistics and training staff who support them - are mostly paid for by city taxpayers.

A memo from Anderson last year said of the 42 administrative positions that support both county and city fire operations, city taxpayers pay for 38 of them.

Joseph Azar, a Five Points businessman who is running for mayor, said a separate county fire department could create problems with "doughnut holes," portions of county land surrounded by the city limits.

"I don't want to see the same problems we have between city and county police service, or 'Which side of the street do you live on?'" Azar said. "We don't need that. Politicians fighting over turf does not trump the safety of citizens."

County officials are skeptical of the city's numbers. They point to the city's recent history of losing track of its money and having to pay a team of outside accountants $1.5 million to find it. Because of that, the county is conducting its own audit of the fire department before deciding between extending the contract or creating its own fire department.

Steve Benjamin, an attorney who is running for mayor, said the next mayor will have to work with both sides to resolve the issue.

"This is probably one of the most important tests of regional leadership," Benjamin said. "We need to be looking at consolidating more services, if not total city-county consolidation. If we fail on this front, it will not be a good sign of things to come."

Benjamin said part of the problem is the city and county council members never talk about the issue, always putting it off until just before the deadline.

"There's some trust issues between the city and county that go beyond the fire service," Benjamin said. "Constant dialogue will help with that."

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