News 12 at 6 o'clock / Thursday, Oct. 18, 2012
COLUMBIA COUNTY, Ga. -- Some changes are likely on the way for the Martinez-Columbia Fire Department. News 12 was first to tell you, after more than 50 years as a private non-profit group, the fire department is working to merge with the county.
The county has always contracted out services to the fire department, but now with insurance costs on the rise, it's much cheaper for them to become one.
They fight fires, and put their lives on the line every day, but the name on their helmet may soon be different.
"The change will be, we won't write the guys a pay check, Columbia County will," explains Martinez-Columbia Fire Chief Paul Cooper.
Chief Cooper spent the day explaining the news of a county merger to his 140 fire fighters. "Anytime change comes, it scares people. I think right now they're just sitting back waiting to see what happens," states Chief Cooper.
Recently the cost of workman's compensation premiums jumped through the roof and were about to cost the fire department more than $900,000 an extra $600,000 a year.
"It kind of brought them to the table as to, where do we go from here?" Explains Columbia County Administrator Scott Johnson.
"At that point we didn't feel that we could operate as cheap as the county," adds Chief Cooper.
With the merger, the county believes it can actually save money, and give the fire fighters better benefits.
"We expect those premiums to be well under $200,000 dollars and a preliminary number that I got was even under $100,000," describes Johnson..
"When and if this thing goes through, the guys will have better benefits," agrees Chief Cooper.
Both organizations want to be clear, this is no government take over.
"There's no takeover here, it's not a hostile business environment where one corporation is taking over a smaller corporation," states Johnson. "The last thing we want to do is go in there and try to gut a fire department that is operating very efficiently and very effectively now."
They believe the move is a big step in the right direction. "I think it's going to be beneficial for the fire department as well as for the citizens of Columbia County to have a county fire department," Johnson adds.
"I think everything's going to go smooth. We're just thinking it will be business as normal," Chief Cooper says.
The fire department's board voted on the decision last night, but the merger will still have to be approved by commissioners.
The hope is to have the deal done by the end of the year. There will be a transition team in place to help with all the details. For now, the plan is for the department to report straight to the county administrator's office.