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Government takeover planned for Martinez-Columbia Fire Rescue

Thursday, Oct. 18, 2012 10:01 AM
Last updated Friday, Oct. 19, 2012 2:11 AM
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The privately operated Martinez-Columbia Fire Rescue is expected to turn over operations to the Columbia County government soon.

Martinez-Columbia Fire Rescue firefighters did ropes training in March. The privately operated department is expected to turn over operations to the Columbia County government soon.  VALERIE ROWELL/FILE
Martinez-Columbia Fire Rescue firefighters did ropes training in March. The privately operated department 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.”

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Little Lamb
Little Lamb 10/18/12 - 10:13 am
Big Govt. In CC

The underlying story is the worker compensation insurance premium increase. Their premium was going to triple in 2013. My question is, “Is this increase going to be typical for all private businesses, or just non-profit fire departments?” We are in for a rude awakening in 2013 if all businesses are going to see worker compensation insurance premiums increase by threefold.

And what about unemployment compensation payments in 2013? Are they going to increase?

curly123053 10/19/12 - 07:58 am
Obamacare Strikes

Welcome to the Obamacare ObamaTax!!

Sweet son
Sweet son 10/19/12 - 04:57 pm

This move doesn't fit the current way of thinking! Normally govt is trying to reduce costs by changing to the private sector for operation of departments. This move seems to be adding govt rather than reducing govt. We all are all sure that this change will cost the taxpayers rather than reduce taxpayer burdens.

Nothing against the fire department. I think that they are a great group of men and women who do a fantastic job for the citizens of Columbia County.

browngirl103 10/22/12 - 11:52 am
I'm so sick of people (from

I'm so sick of people (from either party) saying blanket, unsubstantiated statements and passing them off as fact.

No one know whether health care reforms will affect workers comp insurance positively or negatively in the long term and that sentiment is coming from an actual insurance companies! It's all SPECULATION!

Here's the discussion from Turner Surety and Insurance, one of the largest privately held insurance brokers in the US.

Workers' Compensation and Health Care Reform
February 11, 2012

While health care reform will unquestionably have an impact on workers’ compensation, the extent, nature and desirability of this impact remain unclear.

In the wake of sweeping changes in the U.S. health care system, employers are forced to evaluate the way reform will affect their bottom lines. One factor that was largely left out of the focus of health care reform - but is certainly linked to it - is workers’ compensation. The program represents less than 2 percent of U.S. medical spending, and thus was fundamentally ignored in the 2010 legislation that overhauled the nation’s health care system. Employers are left to wonder what change to expect in future workers’ compensation claims.

Before they can be directly measured, experts can only speculate about the ultimate effects of health care reform on workers’ compensation. While it will unquestionably have an impact, the extent, nature and even desirability of this impact for employers remain far from clear.

Weighing Pros and Cons
Some aspects of reform will almost certainly provide indirect benefits, while others may increase workers’ compensation medical expenses. A few direct results of reform will surely impact workers’ compensation.

• A large number of previously uninsured workers have been given the right to coverage. Common sense would dictate that employees with health insurance would file fewer workers’ compensation claims, making this a positive factor. However, a recent RAND Corp. study reveals that employer characteristics are a more significant determinant for compensation claim filing than whether employees are covered under a health plan. This could mean that an employer that was already supportive when an injured worker filed a health claim may see no difference or even an increase in claims with the reform’s passage.

On the other hand, in the long term, the fact that more are insured could mean an increase in preventive care and a healthier work force in general, which could eventually decrease the number of workers’ compensation claims, as healthier employees will heal faster and return to work more quickly.

Furthermore, workers will be less likely to attribute underlying health problems to occupational disease. They will be more likely to receive prompt treatment of diseases like diabetes or hypertension that, if left undetected, might exacerbate a workers’ compensation claim by complicating surgery or other therapies.

• With more insured individuals, there will be increased demand for physician services. The skewed proportion of physicians to insured individuals, especially in certain rural areas, could create delays in receiving initial treatment and in processing workers’ compensation-related claims. Reductions in staff at regulatory agencies due to state budget cuts could worsen this effect.

• The pre-existing exclusion will disappear in group health. Without it, employees will have less incentive to claim that long-standing conditions are job related. However, with it may come an increased demand for workplace and job accommodations, which could bring about new exposures and safety issues.

• Medicare reimbursement levels have been readjusted. Consequently, Medicare may reduce reimbursement to hospitals. If this does happen, hospitals and specialists will be left in search of alternate sources of revenue – and workers’ compensation is a likely target. Although it makes up only a small part of the hospital’s revenue, it touts attractively high profit margins. State cuts in Medicare reimbursements will amplify this issue where applicable.

• Companies will face a 2.3 percent excise tax on medical devices and supplies. Employers will likely see little difference in their bottom lines due to this tax because these costs are generally already addressed via fee schedules, or they are so inflated that 2.3 percent that is unlikely to be reflected in the final price.

These people are at least trying to analyze the situation from BOTH sides, not spew out the same hateful crap that really doesn't help anyone.

Now that I've gotten that out of my system, by all means, continue on with your vociferous, vitriolic diatribe.

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