Ending fire deal not an option for city, county

RICHLAND COUNTY officials' suggestion that they might dissolve their unified fire service agreement with Columbia is crazy talk.

Merging county and city fire service created a superior, seamless system, ensured high-quality protection for residents and greatly reduced insurance rates. Why would anyone want to tamper with that?

No one should. But that's the nature of the relationship between Columbia and Richland County: It's been up and down and, at times, contentious. While they've managed to work together to get many things done, they also have spent years haggling over others. When one gets worked out - for instance, a joint animal shelter - it's well worth celebrating. But there always seems to be something else unraveling; for example, the county took back control of its business license operation because it said the city, which was administering the program, wasn't doing the job.

The unified fire service agreement often has been cited as an example of how the governments can and should work together to streamline services in the best interest of taxpayers. Yet the city and county have battled over some aspect of it each time it's come up for renewal. Unfortunately, they're at it again.

This time, they're sparring over how much money the county should pay. When the fire service agreement expired in June, the city said the county needed to pay $2.7 million more; county officials said that was too steep. The two sides agreed to a one-year extension, with the county paying $1.9 million more.

Negotiations are to resume in January, and city officials insist the county must pay more because the county has bolstered operations, but hasn't provided for necessary administration and support personnel. Of the 42 positions that support city and county fire operations, county taxpayers pay for four. Columbia Fire Chief Bradley Anderson said the city fire administrators spend about half their time working on county-related issues. The city wants the county to pay half of those 42 salaries.

Richland officials say they can't afford to pay much more. The county funds fire service from a dedicated millage, and with caps on how much local governments can raise taxes, they say, their hands are tied.

No doubt, the history between the county and city is at work here. The two have never communicated well, and the county doesn't trust the city. County officials always have thought the city gets the best end of most joint deals. There is some truth to that; the city often has played ball only when it knew it would come out on top. And the city's handling of the county's business license operation as well as its poor management of funds from a special tax district in the Vista have raised accountability questions.

Some county officials specifically believe the city has long taken advantage of the county in some aspects of the fire agreement. The city's current financial struggles don't help. With the city struggling to recover from millions of dollars spent for unbudgeted health insurance costs and countless other fiscal problems the past few years, some county officials wonder if the city is trying to balance its budget on the backs of county taxpayers.

Despite the city's notable shortcomings, the pertinent question is, what does the county owe? The governments must sit down and come to an agreement, not dissolve this most important alliance that has spanned two decades.

Ending this joint arrangement is not an option.