The privately operated Martinez-Columbia Fire Rescue is expected to turn over operations to the Columbia County government soon.
The department’s board of directors voted on the change Wednesday night after preliminary discussions with county officials, said board Chairman Wayne Kent.
“We look at it as a very positive step forward for the fire department,” Kent said, adding that nothing is expected to change in terms of salaries and staffing.
The change is driven by an expected increase in workers compensation insurance for 2013 from $300,000 to $965,000, Columbia County Administrator Scott Johnson said.
“Basically, they came to us and said, ‘We don’t know what to do,’ ” Johnson said, and the takeover discussion began.
“The county will not and cannot absorb a more than $600,000 mid-year budget item,” Johnson said. “We had to look for other options.”
Putting the fire service under the county umbrella will lower the workers compensation costs to $100,000 or less, Johnson said.
“Workers comp went up so high and Columbia County can get us insured a whole lot cheaper than we can,” Martinez-Columbia Chief Doug Cooper said. “It’s early in the process. We think it’ll be better for the firefighters. We think it’ll be better for the county, and we think it’ll be better for the citizens.”
Firefighters said they learned of the pending takeover in e-mails Thursday morning.
Johnson said he plans to put together a “transition team” composed of county and fire department leaders. He hopes to present a comprehensive package to the county commission in early December for approval. If all goes smoothly, Johnson said, he expects a Jan. 1 effective date.
“We want to make more of a seamless transition,” Johnson said. “We feel like we’ve got good fire protection now and good leadership there.”
No one involved expects major changes to department operations or staffers. The department employs 142 full-time staffers and 40 volunteers.
Officials expect the change to bring the department positive benefits – including a sales-tax exemption, better pensions and health insurance for personnel – all at a lower cost to taxpayers. A new radio system, like the one recently purchased by the Columbia County Sheriff’s Office, also would be in long-term plans for the fire department, Johnson said.
The department started as the Martinez Volunteer Fire Department in 1958 and operated with a donated state forestry service tanker out of a temporary building on Washington Road, across from what is now West Town shopping center.
Services were provided to county residents on a private subscription basis until 2006, when the county instituted a separate fire tax that now pays for the approximately $10 million annual cost of contracting with the fire service.
It’s not the first time a county takeover of the service has been contemplated. According to The Columbia County News-Times archives, the board of the privately operated department approached the county as early as 1977.
Over the past several years, Cooper said, the department has aligned its policies and pay grades with the county.
“We knew one day we would have to become a county department,” Cooper said. The spike in insurance costs is the straw that broke the camel’s back, Cooper said.
The idea of the county’s running the fire department was a long-term goal that motivated many mergers and changes in fire services over the past decade.
The insurance cost problem was the catalyst for the change.
“Nobody expected it to be this soon. Nobody expected us to have to move so fast,” Johnson said. “Now is as good a time as any.”