0

County, city nearing agreement on fire services

By Joel Hall

jhall@news-daily.com

While tough negotiations continue, between the Clayton County Fire Department and the City of Jonesboro, regarding the city's fire services agreement, officials from both sides have signaled a willingness to compromise.

Clayton County Chief of Staff and Fire Chief Alex Cohilas told the Jonesboro City Council during a Monday-night work session that he would be willing to present the Board of Commissioners (BOC) with an offer from the city if the city can agree to a service contract. The county's five-year agreement to provide fire protection for the City of Jonesboro expired on Dec. 31, 2009, according to Cohilas.

"There is no agreement," Cohilas told the City Council on Monday. "We continue to handle calls and will continue to handle calls in the good faith that you all will come to a decision. The Board of Commissioners has signed a resolution authorizing the chairman to sign the fire services agreement. Frankly, in terms of providing fire services, the ball is in the court of the City Council."

Cohilas told the council on Monday that Jonesboro Mayor Luther Maddox and the county fire department have continued to haggle over the amount the county pays the city to lease the Clayton County Fire Station No. 13 building on North Main Street. Under the old agreement, the county paid the city $40,000 a year for the use of the building, which the city owns.

The mayor had originally proposed $90,000 a year, according to Cohilas, but Cohilas said he would be willing to bring an offer of $70,000 a year back to the BOC for its approval, assuming the city would agree to a 10-year service contract.

"Let's pursue a 10-year fire services agreement," Cohilas said. "Then we would talk on a separate deal on a purchase or long-term lease."

Negotiations for the county to purchase the fire station from the city came to a standstill when a 2010 appraisal of the property by the county came to $900,000 less than a city appraisal of the property in 2008, Cohilas said. However, Cohilas suggested continuing the service agreement and approaching the subject of buying the building in three years, at which time the county and city could do a joint appraisal of the building.

"As it pertains to the building, we are $900,000 apart on the purchase," Cohilas said. "It seems to me that some sort of logical middle ground would be to continue some kind of lease agreement for three years, then come back and pay for a joint appraisal in three years."

Some members of the City Council raised concerns about the cost of the service, which Maddox said cost citizens $406,000 in fire millage fees last year. Councilman Bobby Wiggins said the county should dedicate at least one fire truck to only City of Jonesboro emergencies, and questioned the $100 fee the county charges businesses for fire inspections.

"This $100 inspection tax, is that just to make money or is that just for fire prevention?" Wiggins asked Cohilas. "The contract says that [by] paying our fire taxes, you furnish fire prevention. If we had a dedicated engine here, it wouldn't have to run as much."

Cohilas said that five county fire stations are within three miles of Jonesboro, giving it more fire protection than any city in the county, under the fire services agreement.

"Forest Park only has two fire stations, the City of Riverdale only has two fire stations, the City of Morrow has two fire stations and they had to locate one of them on the other side of the railroad tracks because they had trouble getting to some of their calls," Cohilas said. "We frankly have you surrounded. The City of Jonesboro has a much better public safety defense system than any other city by engaging in this service."

Maddox said he believes the city and county are close to coming to an agreement.

"We're close," Maddox said. "The fire services agreement is probably about as good as we're going to get. We were asking for $90,000 [for the lease of the building] and they countered with $70,000. We will probably agree with $70,000. We just have to negotiate the length and time of the lease."

Cohilas said the city would need to present the county with something in writing before the negotiations could move forward.