Jonesboro cuts Volunteer Fire Department

By Ed Brock

In an emotionally charged meeting the Jonesboro City Council voted for a budget that essentially excludes the city's Volunteer Fire Department.

And within an hour after the Wednesday night meeting in which the vote was made the city called on the Clayton County Fire Department to provide automatic aid for the city. City Manager Jon Walker said he and Mayor Joy Day decided to call for help from the county based on the response they had to the vote and in order to make sure the city had fire coverage.

"We had one person (a volunteer firefighter) turn in his badge," Walker said.

The budget includes $86,694 for the expense of the relatively new fire station off North Main Street and nothing else for the department that had a $346,064 budget in 2004. A crowd of more than 100 people jammed into the courtroom at the Jonesboro Police Department for the meeting to protest the decision.

Councilmen Rick Yonce and Wallace Norrington voted against the budget and Councilman Clifford "Rip" Sewell was absent from the meeting.

After the vote the council voted to adjourn without hearing from the audience.

"We have already had public hearings on the budget five times," Day said in response to protests from the audience.

The audience responded with boos and catcalls such as, "We elected you," "Chicken" and "Recall."

Day then said she would stay to listen to the crowd "no matter how long it takes," and though she told council members they were free to leave none of them did.

"What saddens me the most is the dishonesty of the City Council," Fire Chief Jimmy Wiggins said. "I've known most of you for 30 years. I can't believe you can sit up there and do that."

According to a statement from the council, 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.

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 buy a third, and that there was a need for mutual aid with the county.

"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 fire station on North Main Street at roughly $372,000.

Wiggins, who said previously that there were other options beside the two given by the city, said that Day, Walker and the council had not communicated with the fire department about what they planned. That lack of planning came to a head when the department responded to a car on fire in the driveway of a house on Tuesday.

Firefighters went to the old station on Mill Street to get the city's older fire engine, but discovered that the gas had been turned off at the station. The old fire truck wouldn't start because of the cold.

"You put a citizen at risk, you put property at risk," Wiggins said.

Members of Wiggins' family, which has been involved in the volunteer department through all of its 56-year history starting with Jimmy Wiggins' father Clifford Wiggins, also spoke emotionally in protest of the vote.

"You're making bad decisions with money we have given you to run the city," said Susie Wiggins, the chief's niece.

Other members of the audience called for Walker's resignation and called into question plans to build a new City Hall.

"Ever since we hired the city manager it's been going south," said Carl Ayers.

Volunteer firefighter Ed Wise gave a passionate speech about "two letters, JP, Jonesboro Pride. We had it."

Former City Councilman Ed Adair said the meeting was a "sad occasion."

"I've been where you are and I know the decisions you've got to make," Adair said. "When you start losing personnel like we have in the fire department you start losing quality."

Day said the decision was very difficult, but also said that the decision has not been made.

"If we didn't think a lot of (the fire department) we wouldn't have built that fire station," Day said.

Day said that the budget could still be amended and that no contract has been signed with the county.

"Yes, we've talked to Clayton County, I'm not going to sit here and lie, but we haven't made a decision," Day said.

Yonce said he voted against the budget because he thought there should be more talk on the subject and possibly a referendum.

"It's not taken lightly by anybody on the council," Yonce said.

He said he would vote against a contract with the county.

Walker also said the council was facing a difficult choice and "had to look at the best way to provide the best fire protection in the most cost-effective manner."

Under the automatic aid agreement, which will last indefinitely according to Walker, all fire calls will be dispatched to both departments and both departments will respond. Wiggins said that, under the protocols of the previous automatic aid agreement that had lapsed between the city and county, the county would provide one fire engine and one ambulance to any house fire. The county would send a ladder truck as well in the case of an apartment or commercial fire.

Clayton County Fire Chief Alex Cohilas said his department has the city surrounded with fire stations that would answer calls within the city. He said he was also concerned for the safety of Jonesboro citizens after hearing from Walker about the turmoil at the meeting.

After the previous automatic aid agreement lapsed some years ago the city and county continued to have a mutual aid agreement. Under mutual aid the city would be dispatched to a call first, and, if they decided they needed help, they would then call on the county.

With automatic aid the call for service is sent automatically to both departments. Wiggins said that, while his firefighters are still in service until the council officially disbands them, the automatic aid agreement is "an ideal situation," and one he has called for since it originally lapsed.