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Residents getting hot about fire department

By Ed Brock

The city of Jonesboro is considering the elimination of its all volunteer fire department, and the idea has some citizens feeling burned.

More than 100 citizens came to Monday's Jonesboro City Council meeting to express their discontent, and their tempers flared when the council went into executive session for an hour and a half while the crowd waited to be heard.

"This is wrong," said 28-year resident Carol Grider. "They have their purpose, it's to run the citizens off."

Grider and others were still waiting when the council resumed its regular session, at which point Mayor Joy Day read a statement regarding the fire department.

According to the statement, Jonesboro Fire Chief Jimmy Wiggins had talked to the city council on several occasions about the needs of the fire department, beginning in October 2003 when the department requested four full time positions for the 2004 budget.

Also, Wiggins had told the council that it was difficult to get new volunteers, the city needed to replace one of its two fire engines and to buy a third, and the need for mutual aid with the county.

Wiggins had also told the council that he was eligible to retire as of October and was "considering his options," according to the statement.

"Based on the concerns brought to the council by the fire chief and new rules and regulations being pushed by the National Fire Protection Association, the city council elected to consider its options in terms of providing fire service," the statement reads.

The council had concluded it has two options, one being to create a kind of hybrid department that would rely on a mix of volunteers and paid staff. In that option, a total of up to eight firefighters would be hired, starting with four in 2005 and up to another four in the following two years, for a total cost of $800,000.

"The city would need to implement its own city fire millage to cover this cost," according to the statement.

The second option would be to contract with the Clayton County Fire Department to staff the city's relatively new fire station on North Main Street at roughly $372,000.

A third option under consideration is simply maintaining the status quo, Jonesboro City Manger Jon Walker said.

Wiggins said he thought the statement made him sound like the bad guy, but all he did was present the council with the ideal situation for the fire department as they had asked him to do. It was a request Wiggins had often been asked to make and previously the city had simply cut his proposal a little to make it work.

This time they haven't done anything.

"There are plenty of options," Wiggins said.

The city could hire just one or two people to begin with, or just a fire marshal who would perform safety inspections and man the station during the day.

"Currently we're covering the station pretty much every evening with volunteers," Wiggins said. "Daytime is a little harder due to jobs."

As for the fire engines owned by the department, a 1996 model is in good condition but a 1983 model may not pass state inspections.

"The city needs to, I think, support the fire department," Wiggins said.

One problem is that the city's high homestead exemption that essentially cuts out property tax deprives the city of the funds it needs, Wiggins said.

"If you're going to provide services you have to have revenue," Wiggins said.

Carol Grider's husband Roger Grider said he'd be willing to pay higher taxes to keep the local department.

"If you want to revitalize the city, shouldn't you be adding more services," Grider said.

Wiggins said the city's fire service wouldn't suffer if the county took over, but "you just wouldn't have the community involvement." Members of the department tend to volunteer for other city projects as well, Wiggins said, and volunteers are becoming hard to come by.

More people these days move around and aren't committed to one place, Wiggins said.

Carol Grider said she likes the personal touch she gets when she calls the local fire department. After having three open heart surgeries she often gets panic attacks.

"They're very calm and they reassure me," Grider said.

Wanda Sue Vaughn of Riverdale wrote a letter to the editor of the News Daily expressing her concerns. For the 43 years that she has lived in Clayton County, Vaughn wrote, she has enjoyed coming to Jonesboro for "a night out" and she regularly attends city functions.

"I love the traditions and one of them I will remember and have always seen is the volunteer fire department," Vaughn said.

Vaughn also came to Monday's meeting and said later that she was unhappy with the council's decision to keep the crowd waiting while they held an executive session.

Walker said the executive session was regarding two personnel matters and a contract, but he could not discuss the details of the session.

He added that the city had held six other hearings on the budget during which the public had ample opportunity to discuss the concerns about the fire department.

"I'm sorry they felt that way and apologize for that," Walker said. "But we have a job to do also."

There will be no more hearings on the budget but, because the council still has to pass a balanced budget before the end of the year, the council may have a called meeting later this month, Walker said.

Mayor Day did not return a call seeking comment.