UPDATE: Draft fire deal could save city $4.3 million

Tuesday, February 24, 2009 | 10:10 p.m. CST; updated 11:44 p.m. CST, Tuesday, February 24, 2009

COLUMBIA –  Representatives of the Boone County Fire Protection District and the Columbia Fire Department have come to a general consensus on a new draft of a territorial fire service agreement. The final draft — if approved by City Council — could save the city an estimated $4.3 million over the next five years.

Members of both organizations met with City Manager Bill Watkins on Tuesday at the Daniel Boone City Building and finalized the terms of the new agreement, which will be introduced at Monday's City Council meeting. Both sides said they were happy with the terms of the proposal.

Under the agreement, the city would pay the Boone County Fire Protection District a lump sum of $350,000 annually until 2013. That's a significant change from the old agreement, which based the city's payments to the Fire District on assessed property values of land annexed into the city from 1994 through Jan. 31.

The original territorial agreement made the Fire District responsible for land annexed by Columbia, allowing the Fire District to retain the tax revenue it receives from the city.

"The cost of the old agreement was astronomically high," Watkins said. "I would have liked to have gotten the cost lower, but as it is now, it's a very equitable agreement."

As the value of land annexed by the city increased because of development, property tax rates increased. The city's payments increased nearly 535 percent between 1994 and 2007. City Council told the Fire District in June of 2008 that it would seek to renegotiate the agreement, which Watkins has said the city could no longer afford.

The new agreement addresses the two biggest problems with the old arrangement: the cost to the city and concerns from some citizens that they received service exclusively from the Fire District while paying city taxes, Watkins said.

"The (original) agreement was written 15 years ago," Watkins said. "The community has grown and drastically changed in 15 years. (The territorial agreement) was no longer relevant."

Starting in 2009, city payments to the Fire District will drop about 60 percent compared with projections under the old agreement. The volume of calls received and the amount of equipment sent in response to those calls will also decrease under the new proposal. That will offset the revenue lost from the city, said Scott Olsen, chief of the Fire District.

"Based on that decrease (in) the volume of calls, we feel that this is a fair business arrangement for what we are going to be providing the city," Olsen said.

Olsen used the Thornbrook Subdivision to illustrate how the Fire District's response to a call there will change if the new territorial agreement is approved. The Fire District is fully responsible for calls in that area and sends two fire engines, two tankers and one rescue squad. Under the new agreement, the Columbia Fire Department would provide most of the equipment and personnel in response to a call, while the Fire District would send only send one fire engine.

Preliminary approval of the new territorial agreement comes only months after former Fire District Chief Steve Paulsell was forced by board members to resign amid questions about his salary and operation of the Fire District.

In a December report by the Missourian, Paulsell said the loss of revenue from the city under a significantly changed territorial agreement would have a "major impact" on the Fire District.

Under the old agreement, the city would have paid the Fire District roughly $703,448 in 2008. Under the new pact, the city agreed to pay the district $672,756 for last year.

"We're giving you a good deal," Fire District board member Dave Griggs said at the meeting.

"It's a good deal for both of us," Watkins said.

In 2007, Columbia paid the Fire District $550,732; that amount was projected to rise to $872,687 in 2009 and to more than $1 million by 2010.

Griggs said the deal was equitable for all parties involved, even though the Fire District was potentially losing millions of dollars in revenue from Columbia.

"I’m a steward of the taxpayers' dollars," Griggs said. "Whatever we can do to save tax dollars we will do. This new agreement will do exactly that."

In the new draft, either the Fire District or Columbia Fire Department could renegotiate payment from the other agency if the number of calls in areas serviced by the other department ends up 20 percent higher or lower than in 2008.

That means the Fire District could renegotiate payment from the city in 2010 if it responds to 511 calls in Columbia Fire Department service areas. In 2008 they responded to 425 of those types of calls.

The agreement also lays the groundwork for more cooperation between the Fire Department and the Fire District. It requires the chiefs of both agencies to begin developing a system for sharing facilities and equipment in training.

But that should not be seen as a first step in consolidating the two departments, Watkins and Griggs said. The two departments are very different, Griggs said, noting that the Fire District mainly handles rural fires while the Fire Department is trained to put out fires in the city in much larger buildings.

"We service communities with vastly different needs," Griggs said.

In late December, the city extended the 1994 territorial agreement until March 31 in order to answer financial and procedural questions, among others. It would have expired on Jan. 31.

As of Tuesday, members of the council had not been given a copy of the draft, Watkins said.

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Charles Dudley Jr February 25, 2009 | 4:01 a.m.

Well it is good some form of savings is coming because the FY2010 City Budget is already looking bad by the initial news releases.

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