The Columbia Fire Department and Boone County Fire District are negotiating how they will divide responsibility for emergencies in and around Columbia. Currently, the two departments respond jointly to calls in certain areas along city limits.
“Back in the mid 90's, there was a territorial agreement that was put in place between the two agencies," said Battalion Chief Gale Blomenkamp of Boone County Fire District. "As property was annexed into the city, the Boone County Fire District maintained jurisdictional response to that territory and the city paid the fire district taxes that that property was collecting.”
Blomenkamp said this system worked for a while, but the tax money collected in these areas became a larger amount of money as sprawl continued in Columbia.
In 2008, the city’s payment to Boone County was over $600,000. And the next year, it would have been over one million. Blomenkamp said both departments knew they needed a new plan.
“In 2009, we entered into what is called a cooperative agreement," Blomenkamp said. "Areas that were closer to a county fire district station but was in the city limits, they would receive a dual response and vice versa areas that were in our jurisdiction that were closer to a city fire station, then city fire would respond and we would too."
The city of Columbia also agreed to the pay Boone County Fire $350,000 every year for its assistance.The 5-year agreement technically ended on April 1, 2014 and the city did not include Boone County Fire’s payment in their budget last year.
But both departments continue to respond as if the agreement were in place.
Blomenkamp said the two departments have until the end of May to finalize a plan, including how the county department will be paid for last year’s service.
“The two fire chiefs were given direction to figure out the most equitable way for all agencies involved to not duplicate efforts but to provide the best customer service and the quickest response to citizens regardless of jurisdiction,” Blomenkamp said.
The City Manager’s office and the Columbia Fire Department could not be reached for comment on what has been discussed so far, but Deputy City Manager Tony St. Romaine said he hopes the next agreement will not include a payment to the county.
“Hopefully we will reach that middle ground and there will no longer be an exchange of money but just an agreement that we will cooperate with each other in times of need,” St. Romaine said.
But it appears Columbia’s need for assistance may only grow.
“Our sales tax growth is not keeping up with the growth of the population within our community," St. Romaine said. "We need to be adding at least two to three firefighters and probably at least four police officers per year in order to keep up with the growing population. That says nothing of the fact that we have been drastically below national standards across the country for many many years and so that's a problem that we're going to continue to have to fight.”
The city has unsuccessfully tried to increase funding for the fire department in the past. Last November, Proposition 1, which would have increased property taxes to address under-staffing in the city fire and police departments, was voted down.
While Blomenkamp said he doesn’t know what the future of the agreement will look like, he is confident both departments are trying make the best, and most sustainable, decision for the people of Columbia.
“They don't care if it's a yellow fire truck or a red fire truck, they just need a fire truck," Blomenkamp said. "I think both agencies are working towards that common goal of what's best for that customer out there and that's what I think people expect.”