The Boone County Fire Protection District’s decision to end automatic responses to emergencies on the outskirts of Columbia means several neighborhoods will rely solely on service from city fire stations that are much farther away than the district’s.
The fire district for the past three years has provided fire protection without compensation in areas of the city where its stations are closer than city stations. Those include the Thornbrook and Copperstone neighborhoods of southwest Columbia and Old Hawthorne in east Columbia.
Gale Blomenkamp, assistant chief of the fire district, noted the district is supported by property taxes. When the city annexes fire district territory, however, the district loses some of that revenue.
The city and the district in 1994 established a territorial agreement under which the district agreed to serve newly annexed areas and the city agreed to pay an amount equal to the property taxes the district would have collected if the annexations hadn’t happened.
That agreement became troublesome for the city as it annexed more land and the annual bill rose to about $670,000 by 2009. The expense was projected to hit $1 million by 2010, Blomenkamp said, so a new deal emerged.
Under the 2009 arrangement, both city and county fire stations responded to calls in fringe areas. They also identified parts of the city and the district that should be served by the other entity because its stations were closer. The city agreed to pay a flat rate of $350,000 per year and to compensate the fire district for any taxes lost as a result of new annexations.
In 2015, the city asked that the agreement be changed again. Under the new agreement, the fire district continued to service annexed areas but with no financial compensation.
The past three years the fire district has responded to more calls in the city than the city has in the county, Blomenkamp said, even though the ratio is supposed to be balanced. As part of the 2015 deal, the two fire chiefs tried to reduce the disparity by having the district respond to only the most serious emergencies within the city. That helped, but the imbalance remained.
Year County response into city City response into county 2015 (June to Dec.) 204 66 2016 191 87 2017 166 66
Fire District board member and former Columbia city manager Bill Watkins said that district and city representatives have met several times but that it doesn’t seem the city is taking the situation seriously. He cited City Manager Mike Matthes’ failure to show up at the last scheduled meeting.
“I thought we were beginning to make some progress,” Watkins said, adding that Matthes’ absence seemed to send a message. “So, I proposed that we ought to just do away with this. We’ll deal with our folks, and the city can deal with their folks, and that is fine.”
Columbia Community Relations Director Steven Sapp said illness caused Matthes to miss the meeting in question, so Fire Chief Randy White attended instead. Watkins, however, said he would have appreciated some communication from Matthes or an offer to reschedule.
The fire district announced its decision in a Jan. 5 news release. Blomenkamp said it also notified the city but received no response.
“We provided service in areas where our response time is substantially better because it was the right thing to do,” the news release said. “However, district taxpayers can no longer carry the burden of responding into the city without reasonable compensation.”
Beginning April 3, the fire district and the Columbia Fire Department will provide services strictly within their own jurisdictions. Blomenkamp said that doesn’t mean they won’t work together.
“If they’re out of pocket or in training, they can call for mutual aid, and we would respond,” Blomenkamp said. “It’s just not automatically dispatched.”
Sapp, who worked in the Fire Department for about 22 years, said the decision will allow both departments to better serve their residents.
The fire district sought help in the form of state legislation to address the issue. Sen. Caleb Rowden, R-Columbia, has proposed a bill that would require fire district residents to pay both Columbia and district property taxes if they are annexed by the city.
Sapp thinks the bill is a bad idea. “We don’t want to get into a situation where people are being taxed for two services and only getting one,” he said.
Blomenkamp said an amendment to the bill would make it clear that residents would not be double-taxed. And Watkins noted that the first provision of the bill states that the city and the district should first strive to craft an agreement.
The city has discussed the possibility of buying the district’s Station 12 to better serve some residents of east Columbia.
Blomenkamp, however, said about 70 percent of the calls to that station come from the county.
Blomenkamp added that there’s no animosity.
“It’s not about the Columbia Fire Department at all. They are a great organization, and we support them. We always have,” he said. “This is about us protecting our taxpayers and providing a service that our taxpayers deserve.”