News 12 at 6 o'clock / Thursday, Dec. 6, 2012
EVANS, Ga. -- By the end of the year, the Martinez-Columbia Fire Rescue will likely become the Columbia County Fire Department.
The merger to make the private company a county department is underway, and this week, firefighters have been learning more about their new employer. Dozens of Martinez-Columbia firefighters and their families are meeting with insurance representatives about what to expect in the new year.
"We wanted to really give an opportunity for the employees of the Fire Department to find out a little bit more about the benefits Columbia County has to offer and really give them an idea about what's going on with the merger. There were a lot of questions that were unanswered," explained County Administrator Scott Johnson.
After 50 years as a private, contracted company, a drastic rise in insurance costs -- to nearly a million dollars a year -- has the Fire Department merging with the county.
"We're ready for it to be over; it's been a lot of work," said Martinez-Columbia Fire Rescue Chief Paul Cooper.
"We feel like we can keep the same level of service that we had before, -- for the same cost or less in some cases -- so it just seemed like the right thing to do at the right time," Johnson said.
A transition team is in place, working to get the deal done by the end of the year.
"It's going smooth, it's going well. Things are definitely better; it's a benefit to the guys," Cooper said.
But the 140 firefighters still have concerns.
"The biggest issues are going to be for the firefighters themselves, 'What is my salary going to be?' Johnson said. "We're really working hard to make sure we keep the salaries as close to what they were as possible."
"The salaries are going to stay the same, the tenure's going to stay the same, so that makes the troops happy," Cooper said.
As the final details are ironed out, and both sides say they're working together well.
"This is not a takeover nor is the county forming its own fire department. We've worked really hard on trying to make sure they have good benefits. We're trying to merge their time as well, tenure's important to firefighters, and we didn't want to see a 20-year employee lose everything they had," Johnson said.
"They seem to be pretty excited, and I think they appreciate the opportunity to go to work for Columbia County," Cooper said.
Commissioners are set to approve the merger at their Dec. 18 meeting. The merger would become official on Dec. 30.
For now, the plan is for the department to report straight to the county administrator's office.
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