Catoosa County and the city of Fort Oglethorpe have reached an intergovernmental agreement for the county to absorb the city’s fire department and provide all fire service for the county moving forward.

During the Nov. 5 Board of Commissioner’s meeting, commissioners unanimously approved the agreement with Fort Oglethorpe, which is similar to the one it already has in place with the city of Ringgold.

According to County Attorney Chad Young, the agreement is a way to save money and streamline services.

The merger, officials have said, will save the city nearly $1 million in 2020.

“This is a proposed intergovernmental agreement between the county and the city of Fort Oglethorpe to consolidate fire services,” Young said. “Presently, the county operates its own independent fire department and through another intergovernmental agreement, we provide fire service to the city of Ringgold and unincorporated areas of the county.”

Young explained that the county has contributed financially to Fort Oglethorpe’s department over the years, but that the new agreement is a move that will help with overall efficiency.

“The city (of Fort Oglethorpe) obviously operates its own separate fire department and currently the county does provide some financial subsidy annually of $175,000 a year to the city,” Young said. “The city has approached the county over the period of the last few months and there have been some negotiations to try to improve efficiency and reduce costs to the taxpayers and for the city to effectively abolish its fire department and for the county to provide county-wide fire service.”

Before Tuesday’s (Nov. 5) meeting, Fort Oglethorpe’s City Council discussed the matter on Oct. 28. After that meeting, Fort Oglethorpe City Manager Jennifer Payne-Simpkins stated that the agreement had been in the works for awhile and was a likely solution.

“The situation is not what many people think it is,” Payne-Simpkins said. “From the beginning of the agreement between the city and the county, the arrangement was never meant to be permanent.”

With commissioners approving the pact, Young says the item will be placed on Fort Oglethorpe’s next agenda slated for Monday night, Nov. 11.

When approved there, Young said the changes will take effect after the first of the year.

“Presently, we’ve drafted after these negotiations, an intergovernmental agreement that the board has before it,” Young said. “If it’s approved by the board tonight, it would be contingent on the city also approving it. I think they have a meeting called for later this week to consider it. It would be effective Jan. 1 of 2020.”

Finances of the deal

As for as the responsibilities involved related to costs, Young says Fort Oglethorpe will be sending money the county’s way to cover the transition and the services that’ll be offered.

“Essentially we would, under this agreement, provide fire service at the same level and ISO rating that it’s currently provided,” Young explained. “The city would subsidize the county by providing us its insurance premium tax, which is the tax paid by the state of Georgia on insurance premiums to fund fire service. This is the same agreement that we have with the city of Ringgold.”

Fort Oglethorpe’s insurance premium tax revenue equates to about $665,000.

“In addition, the city would provide a one-time payment to the county of $450,000 to be utilized to purchase new fire equipment, to provide fire service, and the city will transfer all of its existing equipment and assets used in its fire department to the county,” Young said. “Finally, on the asset issue, the existing Station 1 property would be leased to the county by the city for $1 per year, and they would also lease us the property on Mack Smith Road, which used to be a fire station and could be utilized as a training facility or even potentially a separate volunteer station.”

What about Fort Oglethorpe firefighters?

One of the biggest questions surrounding the new deal is how it would impact employees of Fort Oglethorpe’s current fire team.

Young said current Fort Oglethorpe employees will be offered spots with Catoosa when the takeover happens.

“As for the existing city employees that are in the fire department, all full-time firefighters will be offered positions with the county, and it’s my understanding that the county staff and the city staff have already been having those discussions,” Young said. “We would also provide fire inspection services to the city on their commercial buildings under this agreement.”

The merger will essentially lay off Fort Oglethorpe 45 part-time and volunteer firefighters.

Per the language in the contract, the agreement could be in effect for as long as 50 years as an intergovernmental agreement under the Georgia constitution, but either party does have the right to terminate the agreement on 120 days notice.

While it’s been an ongoing dialogue and an important decision for both local governments, Payne-Simpkins said that the agreement will benefit all involved and help the city hopefully thrive in other areas with the fire protection needs being handled by the county.

“Contracting with Catoosa County to cover fire protection for us would save a lot of money and would free up funds for other projects that are important to us,” Payne-Simpkins said. “This has been a hard decision. We’re fortunate that we have a good relationship with the county. They’ve been easy to work with. We’re trying to do the best thing for everyone involved and we’re working to be as transparent as possible.”

Following Catoosa County’s approval of the contract, Fort Oglethorpe’s City Council will address the matter during its next meeting Monday night, Nov. 11 at 6 p.m.

Adam Cook is a general assignment reporter and covers the Walker-Catoosa County area. He has been a reporter since 2009.

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