COLUMBIA — As officials from the city of Columbia and the Boone County Fire Protection District met Thursday to renegotiate their territorial agreement, a main question was on the table: whether the closest fire station should respond to calls, or whether territorial lines should continue to determine service areas.
An agreement signed in 1994requires the city to pay the Fire Protection District to respond to calls in newly annexed city land. It requires the fire district to pay the city for coverage of a relatively small portion of the county. The two agencies have met twice since June, when the city council notified the fire district it would not renew the agreement in its current form. City Manager Bill Watkins has said the agreement, which cost the city $550,000 in 2007, has become too expensive.
Fire district stations lie around the edges of the city limits, putting the fire district closer to most areas of the city’s newly annexed land than the Columbia Fire Department.
“As I look at a map, (the fire district is) going to be closest, and I’m not sure we can afford that,” Watkins said.
The agreement’s territory line determines which agency responds to a call. Neither agency will call on the other for backup fire trucks or personnel until they have exhausted all their reserves, even if the other agency's stations are closer.
Watkins said that practice has to end. “There can’t be this firm, dark black line that says, 'This ours and this is yours,'” he said.
Another pressing issue for city representatives is that some residents have been paying city taxes but getting fire district service.
“You pay city taxes, by golly, you’re going to get a city response,” Columbia Fire Chief William Markgraf said. “Is one better? No.”
But fire district Chief Steve Paulsell warned against letting politics and money get in the way of the best possible fire service.
“From a tactical deployment point of view, we can’t let the finance, political side of this drive that,” Paulsell said. “We’ve got to be very careful about that.”
At an earlier meeting, Watkins said he wants a city fire presence at every call in city limits, including those areas now served by the fire district. But that creates the possibility of redundant coverage, which is already common during incidents on Interstate 70.
“Some people are gonna say that’s wasteful,” Markgraf said, but he added that “redundancy is not bad. Duplication is. And there’s a difference.”
No final decisions were made at the one-hour meeting at the Daniel Boone Building in Columbia.
But fire district board member Dave Griggs said he hoped that the staff from both fire agencies could do some of the heavy lifting before the group meets again in November.
If the staff "can’t work it out, then bring us three or four different ideas,” he said. Griggs acknowledged that reaching a new agreement is “a professional, political quagmire.”
“But obviously the goal is to provide the best service,” Griggs said.
And all city and fire district officials who were present at Thursday's meeting agreed that means coming to terms about a new deal.
“As I look at what the situation becomes,” Watkins said, “I don’t like the idea of having no agreement.”
The next meeting is tentatively scheduled for Nov. 6. In the meantime, staff will continue working out specific proposals for approval by the council and fire district board of directors.