The simple answer to city-county fire pact: Work it out

WHILE IT MAKES good sense for Richland County to audit the fire fund administered by the city to ensure its residents are getting what they're paying for, it would be nonsensical for the county to split from Columbia and operate its own separate fire service.

Nonsensical or not, though, one of the things the county is considering as it conducts a review of the fire department is whether it should back out of the agreement it's had with the city since 1990. The fact is that the unified fire service is among the most successful collaborations in the city's and county's up-and-down relationship. The unified system, while not perfect, markedly improved protection and greatly reduced insurance rates. It's hard to imagine an argument being made that the two fire departments would be better off separate than they are together.

That said, the county has some serious concerns that must be addressed. Richland officials question the escalating cost of the service under the city's guidance, a perceived lack of fairness as to how the city treats county personnel and fire stations versus its own - and various other issues.

For years, county officials have wondered whether they've gotten a fair deal from the city: They've heard rumors of the city using the best and newest equipment for its stations, shipping older equipment to the county. There's also a philosophical disagreement about the best way to staff fire stations: The city favors full-time, paid firefighters instead of volunteers, which the county counts on to not only staff the stations but keep costs down.

County officials particularly question city officials' contention that the county isn't paying its fair share for 42 positions that support city and county fire operations, and should pay half the cost for those salaries. Richland officials aren't convinced there is a legitimate need for them to contribute more and wonder why Columbia hadn't raised concerns over insufficient county funding prior to the city's severe fiscal problems. They note that the county funds fire service from a dedicated millage, and with caps on how much local governments can raise taxes, they can't do more.

We don't know whether the county's points are all valid, but it's important that it get its questions answered. More than that, if there are problems, improvements must be made. Columbia must not play hard ball. It should work with Richland County to come up with the best way to address its concerns and - above all - keep the uniform service together.

The way forward here is for these two governments, which share a common constituency in city residents, to work toward correcting the problems and improve the current seamless fire service, not end it.

City and county council members must take the lead and give negotiators a simple directive: Work it out.