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City Focuses Need for Contract on Their Budget
by Ashley Murphy

Thursday, December 16, 2010

The Bradley County Commission and Cleveland City Council held a meeting yesterday evening to openly discuss the issues with the fire service and to hopefully move forward with making a decision as to the future of the the two fire departments; separation, a merger or another contract. Commission Chair Louie Alford opened the floor after telling each representative to "look beyond all of our individual differences. Time to make these decisions - who your constituents elected to make these decisions - step up and make a decision we feel we can live with, both the city and county."

Discussion began by highlighting the motion that Councilman Richard Banks proposed at the previous council meeting. The proposal to the County Commission was a 10 year contract in which the commission paid $1.5 million per year (not including CPI) and at the end of that contract, the two departments must merge. The motion passed through the council. Banks also added that a saving of around $2.6 million would be an annual recurring savings if the two departments were to merge.

Commissioner Howard Thompson had issues with the idea of more money being paid by the county to the city and the statements that taxes would need to be increased. Thompson said no matter what happens, taxes may still need to be raised because "tax in the fringe doesn't bring in what we pay the city." After a little more discussion, Thompson added, "I think all you deserve is about $800,000, really."

Commissioner Ed Elkins then went back to the idea of savings saying that when the designated committee looked at the issue of savings and cost avoidance the big thing was eliminating duplications of service. He said part of the savings Banks' was referring to would close down the county station at Five Points and a new station would be built on Westland Drive. The staff and equipment would then be transferred from Five Points to Westland.

Commissioner Mel Griffith then noted a question of "how much does it cost" had been asked. "The answer to that question is, 'How much is the city spending now that it has the fringe contract that it wouldn't be spending if they didn't have it?'"

City Manager Janice Casteel answered, "The city needs the resources it has and has the capacity to cover the fringe which is why this partnership works so well. When we go into the fringe to fight a fire, we have to have more equipment than we need to fight a city fire. So, your fires in the fringe are more expensive."

According to city Assistant Fire Chief Steve Haun about 1/3 of city fire runs occur in the city and 463 runs were made to the fringe area in Fiscal Year 2010. After hearing the number Casteel continued, "If you want to keep a 3 [ISO] rating in the city, we need the fire halls that we have, plus we need an additional hall to cover the Exit 20 area. So that's why I asked the question Monday about why this contract makes sense. It's because we have the capacity so why should you build halls, etc., and hire men to deliver the service that we have already?"

Griffith didn't find that sufficient, but didn't believe he was going to get a direct answer and asked another question about how the city determines the price to which Casteel answered again, "We had a came up to more than you're paying now by contract. That's why we went away from that and just came to a price that we could agree to. Of course, that price was lowered by a motion...down to $1.5 [million]."

Many discussions surrounded the ISO ratings of the areas and Commissioner Adam Lowe quoted Mayor D. Gary Davis' plan to show the county would still be able to supply residents with an ISO of 4 on $1.65 million. Factored into that was a 21% growth prediction.

Commissioner Jeff Yarber expressed his opinion in favor of a merger as being the "best for the citizens" and Thompson voiced concerns about what would happen to county volunteer firefighters if the departments merged. Thompson doesn't see the city working with the volunteers based on various comments he said he has within the city fire department. The city reps adamantly denied such sayings.

Yarber then discussed the contract and questioned the money for services rendered and the city would fair if the county did decide to go on their own and take the $1.8 million with them. Casteel answered again, "We need every dime of the $1.8 million to balance our budget. We have a budget now that is a bare-boned budget this economy. That's just the way it is. Yes, $1.8 [million] is the impact if you walk away and have a county only fire department."

Yarber then confirmed with Casteel that if the county goes on their own the city is faced with potential lay-offs and tax increases. Casteel said this would be the case and that the city has already frozen positions in fire and police in order to balance their budget now.

Just a reminder to everyone, Mayor Tom Rowland spoke first at the beginning of the meeting saying that this all revolved around "public safety" and encouraged everyone to do what was "best for the residents of Bradley County." Not what was in the best interest of the city's budget.

Banks then announced he would make another motion at the January 10th meeting of the city council to create a contract with the county at $1.5 million per year, plus CPI, and that contract would be upheld until the two parties decided to merge the fire departments.

Commissioner Robert Rominger wanted to remind everyone about the firefighters and not forget what they have been saying. They have came before the commission expressing their disapproval of a contract and a merger and their approval of separate departments. He said they needed to take what the firefighters say into account and don't just sweep them under the rug.

Lowe then "clarified" that he heard no firefighters oppose a contract, just the idea of a merger. He continued by saying the firemen must be misrepresented in the meetings by those who have said they do oppose anything but a separation. City fire representative Dennis Carroll actually went before the City Council at their last meeting opposing both a contract and a merger saying the firemen didn't want the city to subsidize them.

As the meeting ended, no progress seemed to have been made. January 17th is fast approaching. Attend the next few City Council and County Commission meetings to keep up and see what your district representative is thinking. Any thoughts can be brought to the full bodies in order to make the words, for or against, public.