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County pledges to move ahead on Blue Jay station

POSTED: December 23, 2013 7:28 p.m.

Effingham County commissioners and Rincon City Council members are expected to agree next month on a proposal for a fire station on Blue Jay Road.

Commissioners voted 4-1 to push forward on finalizing the proposal. The commissioners will meet next on Jan. 7, and Rincon’s next council meeting is Jan. 13.

“It at least shows the board’s intention to move forward,” said commission Chairman Wendall Kessler. “We’re open to any agreement to give broader fire service at lower cost.”

The city purchased approximately 60 acres at the Blue Jay-McCall road intersection, just west of the city limits. The county has had plans for several years to build a fire station along Hodgeville Road. But Rincon officials have been lobbying the county to shelve plans for that station for now and collaborate with them on a Blue Jay Road facility.

The city, according to City Manager Wesley Corbitt, will gain two extra personnel, both 24-hour firefighters. It also will mean two extra trucks for the city’s fire department, and Corbitt added the city has to have two stations to keep its ISO rating at 4. ISO ratings are used to determine homeowners’ fire insurance rates, and the lower the ISO, the better the rates are.

“We’re not looking to make money off this deal,” Corbitt said.  “We’re looking to get a fire station out of it and provide service to our citizens. We gain some security on our ISO and we get two personnel. It’s very low cost and it’s a short-term commitment from the county.”

Deal terms
Interim county administrator Toss Allen said the county had to make manning the station 24 hours a day a priority. The price of the contract also was lowered from $144,000 to $135,000 a year by eliminating the purchase of equipment that can be done in the future. The contract also was reduced from three years to two years.

“What we put together is less costly,” Corbitt said. “It is designed to provide higher service in that area and in a cost-efficient way for the county.”

Said Commissioner Vera Jones: “This is one of the first times we’ve benefited the most people for the least money.”

Under the terms of the proposed agreement, which is expected to undergo minor modifications but no changes as to its substance, the county will pay the city $135,000 each year for two years. The pact, if approved by both the county and the city, will start July 1, 2014, and will run through June 30, 2016. Each entity has a 12-month out clause, and each also can terminate within 30 days for cause. Rincon can do so for non-payment and the county can opt out for such reasons as Rincon not maintaining 24-hour manned coverage at the station and not lowering the ISO rating in the station’s primary response area.

County staff reviewed the proposed coverage maps and determined that the ISO ratings could be lowered quickly and more cheaply for nearly 300 homes than through current county plans to bolster fire coverage.

The deal also will not conflict with the service delivery agreement ironed out two-and-a-half years ago, and Corbitt said if a better location for the station is agreed upon in the near future, it could be moved.

Commissioner Reggie Loper, the lone opposition vote to the deal, questioned if the deal would provide more residents with better coverage.

“You’re putting a station 4.8 miles from another station,” he said. “There are people who can’t even get a rate. They’re at a 10. We’re covering somebody who is already covered and these others don’t have nothing.”

The county has been planning on building a station along Hodgeville Road, and there has been discussion on the number of homes that could be covered by that station versus the coverage provided by the Blue Jay Road facility. Hodgeville was determined to be the largest underserved area for fire protection.

But Kessler pointed out the county is at least two years away from building the Hodgeville station, which has $400,000 pegged for its construction in fiscal year 2017. The county also approved a total of $238,000 in the short-term work program for planned Pineora and Tusculum stations to bolster fire coverage in those areas.

Risk of creating gaps
Based on a 2008 study, there were 247 homes in that underserved area. Of those, 159 will be covered by the new Rincon station with an expected ISO rating of 4. The rest will go to an 8B.

“I think it’s great we’re reducing ISO ratings,” said Commissioner Steve Mason, who voted in favor of the contract. “But I think we would better serve folks in those areas where they are uninsurable, where they go from a 10 to an 8 rather than a 4 to a 3.”

Added Jones: “I don’t want my property taxes to increase a significant amount so somebody could save a little bit on insurance. I don’t think most people want that. But we do want a reasonable cost across the board for as many citizens as possible.”

A 10 rating doesn’t mean a homeowner can’t get insurance, though some carriers won’t write policies at that level. But it will lead to significantly higher insurance rates.

Mason also worried that the county and city could be creating more gaps in coverage. The Blue Jay station’s five-mile radius will overlap with the LaDessie Zeigler Road station’s coverage.

“I’m OK with the deal,” he said. “I just wish the station were a little bit more south. I think we’re all after the same thing. I don’t want to create these gaps somewhere else.”

The county has money in its short-term work program to renovate the LaDessie Zeigler station, and the station needs work because it barely can accommodate the apparatus, Allen said. The county’s short-term work program projects spending $70,000 for the building over the next two years.

The county, though, will undertake a more comprehensive look at its ISO strategy and where it plans to place future stations to find out if the current location for the Blue Jay station will be effective. The county and Rincon are expected to meet monthly to discuss fire strategy and will invite representatives from Guyton and Springfield in on the talks.

 “If we don’t do this,” Kessler said of the station deal, “two years from now I guarantee I will still be sitting in this chair and we will still be discussing the same issue and we won’t have people serviced. This is the quickest way at the best cost, I think. It gets everybody into the table.

“I expect us to be working on a master plan for Effingham County,” Kessler continued. “I think this is a method to start that process to see how viable the consolidation of services will be and to start doing what I think we’re going to have to do to provide adequate service for the people of the county.”


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