Tennessee cities' fire service costs per capita:
• Bristol - $147.38
• Cleveland - $185.80
• Columbia - $184
• Franklin - $213.83
• Germantown - $174.37
• Johnson City - $150.02
• Kingsport - $169.32
• Morristown - $249.23
• Hendersonville - $150
Source: 2010 Benchmark Survey, Kingsport, Tenn.
CLEVELAND, Tenn.-Cleveland can operate an efficient fire department, keep a low property owners' insurance rating, avoid layoffs and survive a budget squeeze if its contract with Bradley County comes to an end, according to City Councilman Bill Estes.
Estes brought his numbers, based on annual reports from similar-sized city fire departments, to the council Wednesday.
Bradley County pays Cleveland $1.8 million a year for fire service in the county's urban areas around the city limits. But fiscal 2011-12, which begins July 1, is the last full year of the contract.
City officials are trying to make up the shortfall in future budgets without a property tax increase. City Manager Janice Casteel said she is freezing job positions when they become vacant.
City Councilman Richard Banks recalled that former City Manager Joe Cate said losing the fire contract could leave the city with the need for a property tax increase of 18 cents per $100 of assessed value.
On Monday, the County Commission has scheduled a vote on whether to merge the city and county fire departments or continue expanding full-time service in the county.
The decision will have economic impacts on all local residents, Banks said.
Councilman David May said county homeowners already are seeing some "pretty hefty" insurance increases.
"The average person on the street thinks we should continue to crunch the numbers," Banks said.
His motion that the city staff continue to study the merger task force's recent report over the next 30 days was approved.
But that may be moot by then, Estes said, if the county says no on Monday.
"I believe the city can go on its own, maintain the same level of service and keep an [Insurance Services Organization] rating of three," Estes said.
He based that projection on the 2010 benchmark report made by Kingsport, Tenn., comparing its cost of fire service to similar cities'. Estes said Cleveland spends $185.80 per person on fire service, similar to or more than other cities with fire departments of similar size.
With a merger, Estes said, the task force report shows a need for a 12.5 cent property tax increase for the city.
"And for what?" he asked, and answered "the same level of service."
Without the contract, he said, there will be less area and fewer people to serve and less depreciation on equipment, thus a longer time between replacements. Through expected retirements, the department could be reduced to 85 firefighters, he said.