Augusta Regional Airport, Augusta Fire Department dispute over fire response continues

Fire Chief Chris James wants all resources dispatched.

A yearlong legal dispute between Augusta Fire Department and Augusta Regional Airport aired some dirty laundry Monday after Augusta Commission member Donnie Smith raised the issue in a committee meeting.

Fire Chief Chris James said he first determined that fire response was an issue at the airport during a routine alarm test more than a year ago. The call never reached Augusta 911, and instead showed up as a voicemail on the airport fire chief’s cellphone, James told commissioners at a Monday committee meeting.

Since then, attorneys for the city and the airport have been attempting to document who’s in charge when an incident arises but have yet to agree on a plan. Smith said he put the item on Monday’s agenda so commissioners and the public would be aware.

“I don’t want the public at risk, and I simply want to have this fixed,” Smith said.

While Augusta’s charter specifies the fire chief is lead firefighter for the consolidated government, Airport Director Gary LeTellier said the city had designated the Augusta Aviation Commission as authority over the airport, not the commission, while federal laws govern fire protocol at the airport because of its role in interstate commerce.

“I don’t know how to put this delicately, but you don’t have the final say,” LeTellier said. “The federal airline administration has the final say.”

James said he had “nothing against the airport” but it only has two foam trucks and all resources should be dispatched to an incident until it is determined they are not needed.

Commissioners pointed to the need to resolve the issue Monday.

“I’m going to put my fireman hat back on,” said Commissioner Marion Williams, a former firefighter. “Especially when you’re talking about something that get as hot as jet fuel… We ought to be mindful enough to understand the seriousness of this.”

Commissioner Alvin Mason, who is running for mayor, said the city and airport ought to work together. “I hope it’s not an issue, a power struggle on anybody’s part,” he said. “Our main focus should be that our citizens are safe.”

Commissioner Wayne Guilfoyle, who appointed airport commission chairman Doug Lively to his post, said despite the disagreement things have been running smoothly at the airport.

“They’re held by a different set of rules,” Guilfoyle said.

LeTellier called the situation “an embarrassment” and said it was “not fair to characterize the airport as obstructionist” in the yearlong exchange.

Commissioners took no action on the dispute during committee meetings Monday but agreed to discuss it later.

IN OTHER ACTION

In other action Monday, Augusta Commission members:

• Took no action on the 2014 budget, which is not yet balanced, but appeared to agree with City Administrator Fred Russell’s proposal to levy a 2 percent excise tax on energy used in manufacturing, explore 2.4 percent department-level cuts and rely on savings to fill the rest of a $7.9 million deficit, but hold off until mid-fiscal year to decide whether to award employees a cost-of-living adjustment or raise taxes.

• Agreed to a Dec. 3 public hearing on amending Augusta’s Tax Allocation District 1 to remove 1,098 parcels to form a downtown TAD 4. Like Tax Increment Financing in other states, TADs allow tax increments collected over baseline values resulting from new development to be spent in support of the development and not elsewhere. Special City Counsel Jim Plunkett said by forming the new TAD this year, its baseline values will be set at 2013 levels. Questioned about the return on the TAD, Plunkett said a renovated hotel downtown will get $600,000 from the TAD but is investing $6 million, a 10-to-one return.

• Heard a request from Anthony King and Niki Watson for 10 percent of the proceeds of Sheriff Richard Roundtree’s recent auction of seized or surrendered weapons to fund a youth gun violence program. The auction generated more than $300,000 for the general fund, Russell said. Watson said her group’s gun buy-back program had contributed 62 weapons to the auction.

• Agreed to a fourth, $250,000 flight to collect and update pictometric images used primarily by the tax assessor to assess real property values. Assessor Alveno Ross said the last flight had found $39.8 million in new property, adding $839,000 in new tax revenue for Richmond County Board of Education and $346,000 for the city. Commissioners told Russell to seek help funding the program from the school board and other departments that use the data.

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