published Wednesday, April 20th, 2011

Fire merger may not lead to much savings

  • photo
    Dalton firefighter Steven Simpkins works to repair a malfunctioning air pack at the fire station on Tuesday afternoon. The Whitfield County Fire Department and Dalton Fire Department are looking at whether merging the two departments would provide savings or better services. Staff Photo by Mariann Martin/Chattanooga Times Free Press

DALTON, Ga. — Combining the Dalton and Whitfield County fire departments would cost hundreds of thousands of dollars on the front end and likely would not result in significant savings to either the county or city government, according to the agency hired to study a merger.

However, the merger might provide better fire protection to residents and a lower Insurance Services Office rating for the county, which could help lure businesses to the area.

“You are potentially looking at a fire gotten to quicker, which is hard to put a value on,” Whitfield County Commission Chairman Mike Babb said.

Two members of Mizelle, Hodges and Associates, a Dublin, Ga., firm, presented the findings of their report to city and county fire chiefs and officials Tuesday afternoon. The $10,000 cost of the study, commissioned last year, was split evenly between the two governments.

The study is part of an ongoing effort to consolidate and streamline services between the two governments. They’ve already merged planning and zoning offices and building inspections departments, and the county performs all of the city’s road maintenance.

Now they are looking at merging fire and recreation departments, but those moves are separate from their efforts for total consolidation, which may be placed on the ballot for voters to decide in 2012.

Leaders seemed less than gung-ho about the fire department merger after hearing the report Tuesday.

“It won’t save any money — not exactly what I wanted to hear,” Dalton Mayor David Pennington said.

“It’s pretty complicated and will take a long time to do,” Dalton Fire Chief Bruce Satterfield said after the meeting.

PROPOSED FEE WOULD FUND NEW STATIONS

The study recommended adding at least five fire stations — one in the city and four in the county — and more ladder trucks to complete the merger. A single station costs $300,000 to $400,000 annually to staff and operate, Satterfield told the group. The city has five fire stations, while the county has 10.

The additional costs could be paid with a fire fee, the study recommends. A fire fee is assessed on all property, even buildings such as churches, which do not pay taxes now, officials said.

According to the report, the merger is “very feasible” and even may be desirable. The two departments already have a common water system and fire alarm center in place.

They also have a working relationship, with mutual aid agreements, which mean they cross city and county lines to help each other in certain areas.

DIFFERENCES IN DEPARTMENTS

However, the two departments have different ISO ratings and pay scales. Also, the city is an all-paid department, while the county depends on a mix of volunteers and paid firefighters.

The city has an ISO rating of 2, and the county has a rating of 5, according to their latest ratings. ISO ratings affect fire insurance premiums for residential and commercial property owners and a lower number is better.

The study found that the city likely would earn a 3 rating if evaluated today, due to the department eliminating staffing for one engine company and an increase in high-rise buildings in the city.

Combining the two departments likely would mean the entire county would have a rating of 4, according to James Wooters, who helped conduct the study.

How the change would affect insurance costs is difficult to predict, Wooters said.

Businesses generally see the greatest savings in having a lower ISO rating, depending on the type of building and individual insurers, Wooters said.

The study also provided an evaluation of the two departments and recommendations for improvements apart from the merger.

about Mariann Martin...

Mariann Martin covers healthcare in Chattanooga and the surrounding region. She joined the Times Free Press in February 2011, after covering crime and courts for the Jackson (Tenn.) Sun for two years. Mariann was born in Indiana, but grew up in Pennsylvania, Tennessee and Belize. She graduated from Union University in 2005 with degrees in English and history and has master’s degrees in international relations and history from the University of Toronto. While attending Union, ...

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