Opinion Extra

Bolton: Fire dispute a matter of communication gap

THE LATEST dispute over the unified fire service agreement between Columbia and Richland County is a classic example of how far off track things can get when governing bodies don't talk to one another.

Listening to members of Columbia City and Richland County councils talk about how important it is for the two to continue their two-decade-old agreement, you can't help but scratch your head. If it's as important as they say - and it is - why have things deteriorated to the point that the county is seriously exploring forming its own fire department? There's no doubt the seamless - or at least that's what it's supposed to be - fire system has improved protection countywide and brought insurance rates down markedly.

But what it hasn't done is control costs, at least not to Richland County's satisfaction. Although the county has increased the amount it gives the city every year - the cost has more than doubled since 2002 - Columbia officials insist they need even more, which has raised serious concerns among County Council members.

Few on either side think it's wise for the county to start its own fire department, but their inability or unwillingness to talk through real and perceived problems surrounding the management of the system could lead Richland to end the unified agreement. They must not allow that to happen.

At their Feb. 3 meeting, it seemed obvious that City Council members want the arrangement to continue.

"We can not afford to not have a uniform fire service," Councilman E.W. Cromartie said. He said the city must urge its negotiators to work things out.

Otherwise, he frets that "There will be repercussions on their part as well as ours." He warned that if people get angry enough, they could push for city-county consolidation - which in my mind wouldn't be a bad thing. "They weren't there when we had to fight the process to merge the city and county," he said.

Mayor Bob Coble said the difficulty is a matter of dollars more than anything else. He said it's important to help the county understand the costs. "We know this is going to work," he said. "There's no way we won't have unified fire service."

Most County Council members I talked with also favor continuing the agreement.

County Councilwoman Val Hutchinson said she would have to be convinced that the relationship with the city can't be salvaged before breaking away.

"I know that the people that live within the incorporated areas also are county residents," she said. "The main goal is good fire protection for the best price for everyone."

Mrs. Hutchinson then made a comment that would likely irk Mr. Cromartie: "I'm one of those people that wish we had a metro government."

Still, she said it's important for the county to exercise due diligence in auditing the fire system as well as looking at other models. She noted that the county is concerned about rumors, particularly that county firefighters get used equipment while new equipment always goes to city stations. "We have to go through and find out what's rumor and what's true," she said.

County Councilman Greg Pearce said "the ultimate goal is to keep it consolidated because that makes all the sense in the world."

But, he said, the county is in a lurch because "the city wants more money than we can pay them by law because of the millage cap."

Mr. Pearce said overall he's been pleased with improvements in fire protection made in Richland County. But he laments the fact that the county has lost a number of volunteers, who could help keep costs down.

Columbia's management of the system is partly to blame for that, said County Councilman Kelvin Washington, who served as a volunteer. "I think they set the system up to fail," he said, because the city favors full-time paid staff whereas the county wants to develop a vibrant volunteer system. There are other areas, such as Silver Springs, Md., where hybrid systems with full-time and volunteer firefighters work successfully, he said.

Mr. Washington said the city has been unwilling to develop volunteers, for example scheduling training at times of the day when volunteers with jobs simply couldn't attend. Some volunteers go two years before they get proper training, instead of the several months it should take, he said.

This has increased the cost of the system, Mr. Washington said. "We could have had a lot of volunteers trained up," he said. "They just refused to do it."

He said the county hasn't done enough to hold the city accountable. "We just turned $15 million over to them; that was it."

While Mr. Washington insisted the county needs to "go on its own," he left the door open somewhat, saying the real problem is there's no oversight. "You really do need one person in charge," he said.

If there's going to be a city-county fire system, it should be fully merged and should include fully trained volunteers who are integrated among paid, full-time staff, Mr. Washington said. That would be akin to City Councilman Kirkman Finlay's suggestion that there should be a stand-alone agency that oversees countywide fire service. They're both right; that's the direction the city and county should be headed in. And ultimately, EMS should be integrated into that entity as well.

But getting there would be difficult given the apparent communication gap between these two governments.

A start would be to follow Councilwoman Tameika Isaac Devine's advice that City Council and County Council once again begin meeting to work through such issues. "I understand they get mixed messages all the time," she said.

That tends to happen when people aren't talking directly to each other, which is definitely the case here.