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Council dissolves Fire Department

By Ed Brock

With a final roar of public discontent, the Jonesboro Volunteer Fire Department was officially disbanded.

At Monday's regular meeting the Jonesboro City Council voted to enter into a contract with the Clayton County Fire Department to provide fire protection services to the city, and in its next move voted to disband the department.

But for now, at least, the volunteers are still on the job.

"I do want you to know that until the county steps in I and these other firefighters here will run every call," firefighter Ed Wise said.

The council was evenly divided in its votes on the subject and each time Mayor Joy Day had to step in to break the tie, each time voting against reopening the budget and for signing the contract with the county.

Today the Clayton County Board of Commissioners is scheduled to discuss the contract at its work session, but is not expected to vote on it until next week.

The dissolution of the department began at the council's Dec. 15 meeting in which the council approved a 2005 operating budget that provided only $86,694 for debt service on the relatively new fire station on North Main Street. More than 100 people showed up at that meeting to voice their support for the city department and in the weeks between then and Monday signs had been put up in yards and windows showing support for keeping the volunteers.

A large crowd came Monday as well, jeering and clapping as Councilman Rick Yonce made a last-ditch effort to save the department by calling for the council to reopen its discussion of the city's budget. In particular, Yonce said he thought the city should reconsider some of its downtown redevelopment programs, such as the Livable Centers Initiative, to see if cuts could be made to provide funds for the department.

Yonce said he doubted the city could draw enough economic support for new businesses downtown, especially with competition from large discount stores.

"A lot of small towns have thriving downtowns, I just don't think we'll be one of them," Yonce said. "I don't think we need to pursue a lot of downtown development at the expense of our fire department."

Also, the city could look at some of the grants it is accepting, grants that require matching funds, to see what money could be redirected. Day asked Yonce for specific grants he thought could be eliminated and Yonce said he did not know, but that the council would have to look into it.

Yonce was joined by council members Wallace Norrington and Clifford "Rip" Sewell in voting that the budget be reopened to discuss other options. Council members Linda Wenz, Donna Meadows and Yvette McDonald voted against reopening the budget and Day broke the tie to quash Yonce's motion.

The same split appeared when Yonce moved not to accept the contract, with Sewell and Norrington voting for his motion, and Day, Wenz, McDonald and Meadows voting against it. Norrington then moved to table the issue, a motion that was defeated with the same split.

McDonald moved to accept the contract and Day again broke the tie vote that ensued.

"I am in favor of it, yes. I vote yes," Day said.

Day then read a statement regarding the council's "momentous decision," saying the council voted "based on the information available and we have voted on what each of us believe is best for the city of Jonesboro and its citizens."

In her statement Day reiterated what was said in a previous statement from the city stating that based on previous discussions with Jonesboro Fire Chief Jimmy Wiggins that, along with the need for new equipment, there appeared to be difficulty getting more volunteers.

"I have heard rumors of various amounts of money needed to keep our fire department afloat, everything from $104,000 to $1 million-plus," Day said. "The bottom line is that we as a city ultimately need a full-time paid fire department. I believe that should be a long-range goal for Jonesboro when we are able to expand our tax base which is feeble at this point."

According to the previous statement, the council had concluded it had 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 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.

Day also said she was grateful to the fire department for all the firefighters had done for the city. She said she had been treated with disrespect by some firefighters, for which Wiggins apologized when he rose to address the crowd.

Day said she knew that the disrespect did not reflect a majority of the department and that Wiggins owed her no apology.

The mayor concluded by asking the citizens to pray that the issue would not divide Jonesboro.

Wiggins also urged the council to have its attorney review the contract with the county to make sure the city retained enough control over the fire service. He also asked them to sell back to the Atlanta Fire Department a 1986 fire engine that the department had bought from Atlanta with plans to restore it.

He also said certain grants from the Fireman's Fund that the department received recently and which had not yet been used should be returned to the fund.

Then Wiggins teared up and his voice broke as he thanked the volunteers for their service. Members of the audience, the council and the mayor applauded him.

Day said she does not know exactly when the county will take over service for the city.