State legislature files legislation to address dispute with city of Columbia

BOONE COUNTY, Mo. - The state legislature is taking measures to the next level in a dispute over fire calls with the city of Columbia.

For several decades, the two entities have had an agreement that the closest fire station will provide automatic aid and send a unit to an emergency call, regardless of whether it's in the city or the county.

Under the first agreement in the mid-1990s, the city of Columbia originally reimbursed the fire district annually based on fluctuating property tax revenue.

In 2009, the two agreed to keep it at a fixed rate of $350,000 a year and the fire district provided automatic aid only in life-threatening situations.

By 2015, the city of Columbia had requested they reconsider the fee, so the district agreed to continue to provide service for free until a new agreement could be reached. But as of 2018, no agreement has been reached, and the fire district said the city has not been a fair negotiating partner.

"That feeling is frustrating in the sense that we've continued to do this and to no avail," said Assistant Chief Gale Blomenkamp. "We get the same answer from the city."

Another problem the fire district said it faces is the ever-growing sprawl of the city. On its outskirts, like the Scott Boulevard and Old Hawthorne neighborhoods, fire district stations are clearly the closest and any emergency call will automatically dispatch to one of those crews.

Boone County firefighters respond to more than double the calls in the city limits than the city does in the county. Last year, they responded to 166 in the city and CFD responded to 66 in the county.

But with more land getting annexed into the city, comes less property tax revenue for the Boone County Fire Protection District, which is run on property taxes. Blomenkamp said the boundaries of the annexed land are "irresponsible" and almost certainly require a county fire crew to respond before a city crew, which is a few miles away.

"Things continue to be more expensive but our budget stays flat because we're losing our ability to collect property taxes," said Blomenkamp. "We had to take measures upon ourselves to make sure our tax base is protected."

The state legislature has filed Senate Bill 889, sponsored by Sen. Caleb Rowden (R-Columbia), which would fix the boundaries, and delegate responsibility of the annexed territory to the Boone County Fire Protection District. The city would then be required to compensate the fire district with the fluctuating rate it originally got paid in the 90s.

City spokesman Steve Sapp, who spent two decades as a fire marshal with the Columbia Fire Department, balked Thursday at the idea that the city would not be open to negotiations.

"The door has always been open for those talks," said Sapp. "Just because one party doesn't feel like the talks are going favorably for them, doesn't mean that the talks have to end."

He said things shouldn't be taken out of the local level and that the city's main issue was that county fire department officials are asking for too much money in compensation. Blomenkamp said Thursday that he and Chief Scott Olsen were not aware a specific dollar amount had been suggested, but on further investigation, it was discovered that a fire district board member suggested $300,000.

"We felt that the numbers the Fire Protection District was asking for were not reasonable," said Sapp.

The Columbia Fire Department has reported it is in need of more fire stations to meet the growing need of the city, but Sapp said that it is still able to service all areas.

"At the end of the day, the city of Columbia fire department is responding to every call within the city limits of Columbia, regardless of whether the county fire department is responding or not," said Sapp.

The fire district has informed the city it will end automatic service to the city starting April 3. It will still respond to emergency calls if they are requested and will honor their response strategies at Interstate 70 and Highway 63.

Blomenkamp and Sapp said they want to work together and the goal is to continue to have a working relationship to help the citizens of the city and county. Both said the door is still open for negotiations.

The firefighters union president, Travis Gregory, sent a letter to the fire district Thursday asking it to reconsider, and withdraw the bill. Blomenkamp said the union has not been active in any of the dozens of meetings between the city and county.

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