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Jonesboro discusses county fire-services contract

By Joel Hall

jhall@news-daily.com

The City of Jonesboro and Clayton County fire officials are reportedly $900,000, and years apart, in the effort to hammer out an agreement on fire services for Jonesboro's estimated 4,100 residents, Jonesboro Mayor Luther Maddox said.

With the fire services agreement expired since the end of last year, Maddox attempted on Monday to gauge the opinion of City Council members on whether to stay with the county, or find another provider. While the agreement has expired, Maddox said the county is still providing fire service to the city under the terms of the previous agreement.

During a work session at the Jonesboro Police Department, he attempted to elicit from council members a unified approach for what he termed "hard-nose negotiations" with the county.

"I would like to talk to the council about what they [council members] want me to bring to the negotiating table," Maddox said.

At the heart of the matter, according to Maddox, are differences between the county and city regarding the lease or purchase of the Jonesboro Fire Station -- presently Clayton County Fire Station No. 13 -- and the length of the service contract.

Maddox said he and representatives of the county have discussed a possible purchase of the building by the county, but a county appraisal put the building's value at $1.1 million, while a city appraisal put its value at $2.04 million. "That's about a $900,000 difference," Maddox said. "The county thinks the city is going to just give away the fire station."

He said he has also discussed a possible 10-year service agreement with the county, but that he would prefer a five-year renewable contract, similar to a previous five-year agreement which expired at the end of last year.

Under the county fire department's previous agreement with the city, the county leased the Jonesboro Fire Station for $40,000 a year and billed the citizens of Jonesboro for service by imposing a fire services tax.

County fire officials were guarded about the outcome of a meeting last week with Maddox.

"We've talked about a 10-year agreement and we've talked about purchasing the building," said Clayton County Fire Chief and Chief of Staff Alex Cohilas. He said it would be "inappropriate" to discuss the details of the county's negotiations with the city, since the entire council has not been privy to the discussions. However, he said the county has had "a great relationship" with the city and that the county looks "forward to a long-term relationship with the City of Jonesboro."

The City of Jonesboro dissolved its former volunteer fire department in 2005 and handed the service over to the county.

Councilman Roger Grider suggested the city demand more money for the lease of its fire station building.

"I think all of us would be happy with $70,000 [a year for the lease]," he said. "That would be $30,000 over previous years."

Councilman Bobby Wiggins said he disliked the $100 inspection fee the county fire department charges businesses for fire inspections and suggested the city should use another provider.

Wiggins said he wanted the city to re-establish its own fire department.

"We pay fire taxes and I believe it [the inspection fee] should be covered under that," Wiggins said. "We've been going round and around with the county about the cost of the service. I think we need to start off in a different direction."

Prior to the work session on Monday, Wiggins said officials from the City of Forest Park recently gave a presentation to the Jonesboro City Council about the feasibility of Forest Park providing fire services to the city.

Forest Park City Manager John Parker confirmed Monday that "there was some discussion with the mayor and council in Jonesboro pertaining to fire services," but declined to go into detail.

While Wiggins said he would consider going with Forest Park as a service provider, in the long run, he would like for the city to have its own fire department with "dedicated fire engines to our city."

"I would like to see the city have a dedicated department," Wiggins said.

"We don't need a full-time department. If we could get the volunteers back ... we could maybe do it the way we did it in the past. If we had enough volunteers, I'm sure that we could hire somebody to answer 90 percent of our calls or better," he added.

Councilwoman Pat Sebo said the city needs to consider what it can afford before it tries to take on providing fire services again.

"As much as I know it is a passion for a lot of people in the city to have it back, it may not be cost effective," Sebo said. "With the economy the way it is, we need to make sure we can afford it."

According to Clayton County Fire and Emergency Services Battalion Chief Landry Merkison, Clayton County Fire Station No. 13 has 39 firefighters working at the station in three separate shifts. He said the station houses two supervisor cars, one fire engine, one ladder truck, an ambulance, and a Georgia Search and Rescue vehicle.