COLUMBIA — At Monday’s city council meeting, the Council prepared a resolution that directed staff to send a letter to the Boone County Fire Protection District terminating the current territorial agreement. The letter is intended to force a restructuring of the agreement before Jan. 31, 2009 rather than eliminate the agreement entirely.
The territorial agreement determines which fire department — Columbia Fire Department or the Fire Protection District — responds to fires or medical emergency calls in areas annexed by the city since 1997. The fundamental issue is whether the city should continue to pay the fire district to service annexed land, or build new fire stations and expand Fire Department staff to cover those parts of the city.
If the current agreement is renewed, payments to the fire district are projected to double in the next six years to more than $1.5 million in 2013, according to a document presented to the City Council during its retreat in June. The city paid the fire district $550,732 in 2007. Building and staffing new stations also carries a high cost. In 2005, for example, the cost of building City Fire Station 8 was $2.7 million plus approximately $1,000,000 annually for 12 employees added to the staff.
In a letter to Columbia Mayor Darwin Hindman and the council dated June 2, City Manager Bill Watkins said the fire district territorial agreement could be “one of the potentially most contentious issues” this calendar year.
The current agreement, last revised in 1997, would have been automatically renewed for one year if the city did not give the fire district notice by the end of June, Watkins wrote in the letter. However, payments will be made to the fire district at the current rate for the 2009 fiscal year regardless of how the renegotiations turns out.
In an updated study of Columbia’s fire-station needs from the City Council’s retreat materials, Columbia Fire Chief Bill Markgraf addressed the impact that additional fire stations would have on Fire Department response time. In the northside, building a station in the vicinity of Blue Ridge Road and Providence Road would shorten the response time for 369 calls annually. Land for this prospective station has already been purchased.
The remaining areas would require the purchase of land. In the west and northwest sides, a station near I-70 and Stadium Drive would cut the response time to 355 calls annually.
On the eastside, a station located in the vicinity of Broadway and Trimble Road would cut response time to about 343 calls annually.
On the southside, locating a station near Southhampton Drive and Forum Boulevard would cut response time to about 160 calls each year.
On the northeast side, a station near Brown Station and Waco Roads would shorten the response time to 106 calls per year.
The Fire Department wants to cut its response time 4½ minutes for 80 percent of calls. In 2007, it met that goal in 43 percent of calls. Fire district Chief Steve Paulsell was not available for interviews Monday regarding the fire district’s response time. Division Chief Gale Blomenkamp asked that all questions be submitted to Paulsell in an open records request.
During the first of three territorial agreement meetings on Nov. 26, 2007, Watkins explained the city’s concern with the financial aspects of the agreement. He noted the costs of calls responded to by the fire district inside city limits are substantially higher than those handled by the Fire Department.
As city limits have expanded and the area has become increasingly developed, property value and payment to the fire district have risen accordingly.
In 1997, the assessed value of city territory under the protection of the fire district was $652,490. In 2007, the figure had climbed to over $93 million. It’s the assessed value that determines how much the city pays the fire district, according to state law.
In his June 2 letter, Watkins wrote that he does not favor payments based on assessed value. Instead, he favors payment on a per-call basis. Changing the formula would require a new state law, as Paulsell pointed out at a Nov. 26, 2007 meeting on the territorial agreement.