York, county working on new fire service contract

YORK -- York firefighters are hoping to put out a fire before it starts.

Last week, York City Manager Charles Helms, at the request of the York City Council, wrote a letter to County Manager Jim Baker requesting a meeting to discuss extending a fire service contract between the city and county after the current contract expires in two years.

The step by York is a way to avoid some controversy over proposed fire substations and allegations that York wouldn't be willing to work out a fair fire service agreement, York officials said.

"There's been a lot of questions brought up in the past couple months about whether we were going to be willing to sit down in two years or not," York Fire Chief Domenic Manera said. "We felt like it would be best for us to go ahead and sit down now and start working on a long-term contract."

Controversy over the fire service York provides outside its city limits started last year when city officials and county officials debated about how much the county should pay the city for service after the previous contract expired.

The York Fire Department, whose budget exceeds $500,000, received about $20,000 a year from the county under the previous contract as well as the use of a county-owned fire engine, ladder truck, tanker and grass truck. Because half the York Fire Department's calls are outside city limits, city officials said they should get more money from the county.

The city and county hired a consultant in December who recommended the county pay the equivalent of two firefighter salaries, which would have worked out to about $76,000. County officials offered to pay $60,000, but the city refused.

An agreement was finally reached in March for $74,000 a year for two years.

County Councilman Joe Cox was upset about the deal, saying it took money away from rural fire departments. At his request, a public safety committee has been looking into forming substations around York County that would provide better fire service for rural areas and could eliminate the county's dependence on York's fire service.

David Jennings, chairman of the York County rural fire board, said the goal of the substations is to meet the needs of people outside a 5-mile range of a fire station. Cox said there's no way York firefighters can quickly respond to fires far outside the city limits, in places like Hickory Grove, in enough time to save a burning home.

The public safety subcommittee is looking at building up to seven substations in a plan that wouldn't require York's service. In that plan, a new volunteer station could be built in the Cotton belt area and three of the substations would be located outside York.

The subcommittee also plans to come up with a proposal that would include York's service, Jennings said.

Even if the contract was renewed, there's still a need for two substations outside a 5-mile range of York's station, Jennings said.

The substations wouldn't have to be too expensive, Cox said.

"Basically, all we need is two bathrooms, two bays and heat," he said.

He predicts each substation building could be constructed for less than $300,000. He didn't know how much land could cost.

While substations can be a good thing, Manera said, there are potential problems by not having paid staff.

"Just putting a substation in could give people a false level of security," Manera said. "With the volunteer departments, you are always concerned with the availability of all volunteers -- and that's nothing against the volunteers, it's just that they have full-time jobs."

County Councilman Buddy Motz said York and the county have historically had a good relationship, and he's pleased to see the city is willing to come to the table early to pursue a possible contract extension.

"We want to plan ahead and make sure that we're all working together from the same standpoint," Motz said. "Working together, I think you come out with a much better product than working against each other."