Consolidation or cooperation?: City, county at odds over study of fire departments

File/Daily Citizen-News

Firefighters and emergency medical technicians rescue a simulated victim during a demonstration fire at Dalton Fire Department Station 2.

Some members of the Whitfield County Board of Commissioners and the Dalton City Council agreed in January to seek a study of ways their two fire departments could work better together, reduce costs and improve services, particularly how they handle medical calls.

But did they also agree that study should look at consolidating those two departments?

The men who negotiated that agreement have different answers to that question, and it could derail the jointly funded study.

Earlier this month, members of the City Council voted 4-0 to approve a $60,265 agreement with AP Triton of Napa, California, to study how fire services are delivered in Dalton and Whitfield County.

But on Monday, commissioners voted 4-0 to postpone a vote on the study until their July 13 meeting, when they hope to have a better understanding of what it would do.

Before the vote, Chairman Lynn Laughter read from an April 29 letter to Dalton Mayor David Pennington from AP Triton CEO Kurt Henke regarding a "proposal to conduct a consolidation study for the City of Dalton and Whitfield County." She also presented a June proposal from AP Triton for a study of the two fire departments, which uses the term "consolidation" a dozen times.

"I would tell you up front I don't think we should agree to fund half this study," she said. "I don't think we agreed to do that."

The study grew out discussions in January among Pennington and council member Derek Waugh and commissioners Harold Brooker and Greg Jones that found a resolution to a lawsuit filed against the county by the city over their service delivery agreement.

Georgia law requires cities and counties to negotiate new service delivery agreements every 10 years, and these accords outline which services governments will provide and how they will be funded. With those agreements, duplication of services can be reduced, and the Whitfield County service delivery agreement — which is actually 39 separate agreements — covers items ranging from ambulance service to historic preservation to zoning.

Laughter said Pennington arranged the meeting between the four elected officials "and I think it shows great disrespect for the office of chairman to exclude the chairman."

Pennington said he "didn't exclude anyone. They could have brought Lynn."

He said he invited Brooker and Jones to meet since he'd worked with them in his previous time as mayor.

"I thought we could get something done," he said.

The four reached an agreement, which both governments would later approve, to extend the service delivery agreement that expired on Oct. 31, 2019, through October 2022, with changes to funding for paving and administrative costs for the county fire department.

Under the agreement, which commissioners adopted Monday by a 4-0 vote, the county will pay the city 20% of its paving expenditures for projects in the county through in-kind paving work, capped at a limit of $200,000 each year. The county will also place $125,000 a year into the special tax district that funds the county fire department to pay overhead operating costs instead of operating it from the county’s general fund as it had been.

But commissioners balked on the fire study, saying it wasn't what they had agreed to.

"We did not agree to consolidation," said Brooker.

"We agreed to look at ways we can cooperate more, save money, become more efficient," said Jones. "We did not agree to study consolidation. I don't think the commissioners will vote for consolidation, and I don't think voters will support consolidation."

Pennington recalls the discussion differently.

"Last year, or the year before, almost 90% of the calls handled by the city fire department were medical calls, not fire calls," he said. "For the county fire department, it's like 80%."

He also noted that the city and county have some fire stations that are only a few miles apart, and that the county has built two new fire stations in the last two years and added firefighters and fire trucks to improve the fire department's service.

"I wanted a study that would look at all of this, to see what is the most efficient, best service we can offer to the citizens of Dalton and Whitfield County," Pennington said. "It may be consolidation. It may be something short of consolidation. It may be changes to the ambulance service or how we handle medical calls. And that's what they agreed to."

Waugh said he thought the study "was about looking at efficiency as opposed to any sort of mass attempt to consolidate the two departments. It was based on fire department efficiency. It was based on ambulance service efficiency, making sure that we were doing everything we can for the citizens of Dalton and Whitfield County to make sure they are getting what they are paying for and that we are doing that in the most efficient way possible."

Brooker and Jones said that if it is made clear that the study is not to look at consolidation they could still support it.

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