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One way or another, the city of Fort Oglethorpe's fire department is getting restructured.

The city operates two stations manned by seven full-time employees and a host of part-timers and volunteers, covering both the city and certain parts of unincorporated Catoosa County. For its services to the unincorporated areas, the county pays the city $175,000 annually. But in August of this year, the county cut that funding for its 2019-2020 budget which went into effect Oct. 1, 2019.

Without that funding, the city and county met to discuss possible remediation. That began talks of an intergovernmental contract that would absorb the Fort Oglethorpe Fire Department into the county's operations.

Under the agreement, the city would also make a one-time payment of $450,000 out of SPLOST funds to purchase new fire equipment and transfer all its existing fire protection equipment and related assets to the county. Station 1 would be leased to the county for $1 a year, the city's shuttered Station 10 off Mack Smith Road would be leased to the county as a training facility or separate volunteer station, and the city's Station 8 would close.

At the Catoosa County Board of Commissioners meeting Nov. 5, after an hour of executive session, that board unanimously approved the merger.

That left the city council with two choices at its Nov. 11 meeting: sign the deal or restructure the city's fire services.

Since 1993, the city and county have had various agreements for the city to assist the county in covering unincorporated areas of Catoosa. In March 2011, the county entered into the latest contract to pay Fort Oglethorpe $175,000 for the city's Station 8 to provide services to certain unincorporated areas of the county. But the agreement stipulated that with 120 days' notice by either party, the contract could be terminated and the payment would cease.

In August 2018, the county board of commissioners began talks about terminating the service. After Fort Oglethorpe officials met with the commissioners, the county offered an additional year of funding.

"When the 2020 budget came around this year, we were not surprised when they did not include the $175,000 [for the fire services]," City Manager Jennifer Payne-Simpkins, who announced her resignation Tuesday, said after the county's vote. "That's a significant hit to the fire department and the city's budget."

The loss forced her to go to the drawing board.

"I'm thinking that if we're no longer having to provide service in a certain area, then can we scale back our operations to reflect that," she said. "I quickly learned that it doesn't work that way in fire service."

The department tries to staff three firefighters per shift at both Station 1 and Station 8. Station 8 services the unincorporated areas using primarily part-time firefighters.

At the city council's Nov. 11 meeting, the city's 2020 budget proposal requested $1,627,943 for the fire department to restructure. That included hiring nine full-time firefighters, closing Station 8 — effectively laying off all 45 part-time firefighters — and discontinuing the volunteer stipend of $225 for the first and second hour, maxing out at $450 per incident. Last year, the city budgeted $1,551,944 to the fire department.

However, the county offered to absorb Fort Oglethorpe's fire department and save the city the $665,000 cost of the city's insurance premiums tax, a tax collected by the state and redistributed to cities based on population. Fort Oglethorpe will continue to collect the tax from the state and will pay the county. The consolidation would still shut down Station 8.

All the city's full-time firefighters have met with the county to discuss receiving comparable salaries and equivalent rankings, positions and benefits, County Manager Alicia Vaughn said.

The city of Ringgold's fire department was absorbed by the county in 2008. As with the county's offer to Fort Oglethorpe, Ringgold rents its existing fire station to the county and pays its state share of the insurance premiums tax to the county for fire protection.

The county's agreement with Fort Oglethorpe also states the county would provide service at the same Insurance Services Office rating. Both Catoosa County's and Fort Oglethorpe's fire departments operate with ISO ratings of 3.

Insurance companies use ISO ratings to help set home insurance rates. The lower the number, the better a fire department's evaluation.

"The potential [to merge] was always there," Vaughn said. "Right now, the financials are there and the city trusts the county to provide the service."

Steve Brandon, a 15-year volunteer firefighter in Fort Oglethorpe, said the change is uncalled for and unnecessarily threatens the lives of those in both the city and unincorporated areas. He worries that response times may become longer once Station 8 is closed for good and that ISO ratings would go up.

Brandon said many part-timers and volunteers were blindsided by talks of an agreement to remove the post.

"I'm very passionate about our fire service and the work we do," Brandon said. "We've done everything we could to do good for the city."

Contact Sabrina Bodon at sbodon@timesfreepress.com.

 

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