A deal that would consolidate the Effingham County and Springfield fire departments could be resolved in a matter of weeks, following a workshop last Wednesday between county commissioners, Springfield City Council and staff from both bodies.
Under the agreement, the city will contract with the county for fire protection. The county will buy the city’s equipment, and Springfield will build a new fire station, which it will lease to the county for $1 a year. The new station will be placed at more advantageous location from the current Springfield Fire Department station on North Pine Street.
Several details remain to be resolved, but representatives from both sides are optimistic the agreement can be finalized soon.
“I see very little downside,” said Springfield City Council member Kenny Usher. “I think in three years, we’ll be patting ourselves on the back.”
“I do think it is a step in the right direction,” said County Administrator Toss Allen.
The city and county also have to work out how to account for the Springfield full-time firefighters’ vacation, sick leave and retirement that has been accrued and to have it transfer properly to the county’s personnel setup.
“The employees are not deciding to leave the employers,” Springfield City Manager Brett Bennett said. “They’re not choosing to leave, so we’d hate for them to lose the credit for their time served. You hate to penalize them.”
Added Springfield Mayor Barton Alderman: “We ‘d hate for them to lose any benefits.”
All three current Springfield full-time firefighters previously were employed the county, so they would cover with some tenure, county human resources director Rushe Hudzinski explained.
“This makes it a very unique situation,’ she said.
Under the framework of the agreement, Effingham Fire and Rescue Chief Clint Hodges will continue to supervise the joint department. Springfield Fire Chief Travis Zitterour will become a battalion chief. The city’s three full-time firefighters, including Zitterour, will become county employees.
Under the agreement, the county will move its headquarters from the Shawnee station to the station Springfield will build. The Shawnee station will remain in use after the move. The station on Courthouse Road also would become unmanned. The fire training apparatus would remain there, but the computers used for training would be moved from the Courthouse Road station to the new Springfield facility.
The new Springfield station will be built in a more advantageous location, Bennett said. The current Springfield Fire station isn’t big enough to accommodate 24-hour crews and trucks also can be blocked in by traffic on adjoining roads.
The station Springfield will build will accommodate a 24-hour two-man engine company.
‘The idea is to build the station where it needs to be,” Bennett said. “We’re planning it together. If we terminate the agreement 10 years down the road, the station is still where it needs to be, in the city limits, and we can go in and operate it.”
County commissioners are hoping to get the deal done in the next few weeks before they finish the fiscal year 2016 budget. The 2016 fiscal year begins July 1.
The county will buy the city’s equipment, and the city will lease the new station to the county for $1 a year. Also the city will no longer collect service delivery agreement payments from the county for fire service outside the city limits.
The county could purchase the city’s equipment through installment payments, Bennett noted. Even if the deal falls apart after it is enacted, the installment payments would continue.
The city also will adopt the county’s fire fee structure. Current county fire fees were $80 for residences and $250 for commercial buildings. City adopted a $60 per year fee for residences and a rate of 3 cents per square foot for commercial buildings, with a minimum base charge of $150.
Springfield also will cease to receive payments from the county based on the service delivery agreement for fire coverage outside the city limits.
Resolving some of the personnel compensation and accurately assessing the value of Springfield’s apparatus may be among the most difficult issues to resolve.
“I see potential issues where it can get complicated,” Bennett said. “We know where we want to go. Whatever it takes to make the deal work, I think everyone is committed to doing.”