Fire Fight: Columbia, Richland County working on fire service contract

COLUMBIA, S.C. (WACH) - Richland County leaders are stepping up efforts to reach a new fire services deal.

Columbia has provided fire protection services for Richland County for two decades and the agreement between both municipalities has been expired for the better part of two years. It is currently going month-to-month while local leaders try to agree on a new deal.

"It's a very successful program since it was enacted," said Richland County councilman Seth Rose. "We have better insurance rates because our fire services actually improved."

Whether those services continue with the city of Columbia is still in question. A new joint agreement between the city and county has been in limbo for months.

At a Tuesday meeting, county council members moved to have county officials meet with city representatives "immediately" to discuss the particulars of how more "financial accountability" can be worked out in a new agreement.

County leaders want more of a say in how the fire chief uses Richland County's roughly $17 million-a-year contribution to the fire system. The county has never had a voice in how those funds are used.

"At this point, for us to do a side by side analysis, I just don't think we have the ability to do that," said Richland County councilman Greg Pearce. "We need to have the professionals work on this thing."

County officials are hoping to reach a possible agreement by June when their budget process wraps so they know how much money they need to allocate for fire services.

Last month, Columbia-Richland fire chief Aubrey Jenkins made his case to Richland County leaders to continue the joint agreement that gives the chief authority over staffing, equipment and decisions at all 32 fire stations.

"It's not only enough to have the responsbility," Jenkins said in late February. "But, I've got to have the authority to implement the programs."

On Tuesday, the committee of county council members and officials did not question the chief's authority while Jenkins and his command staff looked on.

Jenkins has applauded the council's efforts to stay transparent by involving him and his staff in the process.

"It's not at all that we want to micromanage the fire chief," said Richland County administrator Milton Pope.

At this point, the money matters appear to be one of the sticking points. If neither side comes to terms, some council members support a "Plan B" to establish a separate fire force for the county.

Critics argue that a split would negatively impact the area's ISO (Insurance Service Office) rating. The ISO's Public Protection Classification gauges the fire protection capability of a local fire department to respond to structure fires. The scale is ranked 1 to 10, with 1 being the best possible rating.

"I don't think the taxpayers want us to have two separate fire chiefs that we as taxpayers are paying for, or separate training facilities," said Rose. "It just makes absolutely no sense."

Still, the contract negotiations still face roadblocks. Some county council members say they want the fire services deal with Columbia to be more of a partnership, as opposed to simply just a contract for services.

There has been no deadline set for when a contract could be finalized.