Columbia County is looking into the possibility of having one entity operate fire service in all unincorporated areas of the county, commissioners were told Monday.
The announcement was made during a meeting of the county's Management and Financial Services Committee in response to a decision by Harlem city officials not to renew their fire service agreement with the county after this year, county officials said.
"Our goal is to get to one service provider in the unincorporated area of the county," County Administrator Steve Szablewski told county commissioners, adding that North Columbia Fire & Rescue would be incorporated into Martinez-Columbia Fire Rescue.
North Columbia Chief Tom McFarland said that his department is agreeable to such a merger "in principle" but that the details still need to be worked out.
"Basically, it's kind of like the situation of paying your income tax. It's inevitable. We knew it was coming,'' he said, but added, "We didn't think it was going to be coming this quick."
Mr. Szablewski said North Columbia volunteers and staff would be given the opportunity to apply for the positions needed for Martinez-Columbia to oversee the area now served by North Columbia, which includes Appling, Leah and Winfield.
Chief McFarland said his department has three full-time staff and about 90 to 100 volunteers. He said that in a merger Columbia County would take over responsibility of paying off North Columbia's debt, about $200,000, on a building and seven fire trucks.
Harlem officials recently said they weren't interested in continuing a contract with the county beyond December. That contract calls for Harlem firefighters to respond on a pay-per-call basis, charged to the county, for fires in certain areas near Harlem's boundaries.
Harlem Mayor Scott Dean said Monday that his city made an offer to the county involving another contract but that it was turned down.
He said that offer asked the county to reimburse Harlem with the fire service fees collected in the unincorporated areas the city now services instead of on a pay-per-call basis.
"They never responded, so we took that as 'Well, I guess we won't be doing anything.' ... We're more than willing to provide the service, but they don't want us to anymore for anything that's reasonable,'' he said.
If Columbia County were to start covering certain unincorporated areas surrounding Harlem next year, Mr. Szablewski said, it would likely require Martinez-Columbia to operate a station 24 hours a day in the Phinizy area. And, he said, Martinez-Columbia would probably operate 10 stations 24 hours a day instead of the eight they now have.
Reach Preston Sparks at 868-1222, ext. 115, or firstname.lastname@example.org.