By DOTTY NIST
An interlocal agreement has been approved providing for Walton County to pay an equal share in funding the operation of Freeport’s fire department.
The decision took place at the Nov. 8 Walton County Board of County Commissioners (BCC) meeting at the South Walton Courthouse Annex.
County Administrator Greg Kisela presented the proposed one-year interlocal agreement between the county and Freeport for fire protection services. The agreement provided for Walton County to furnish half ($275,000) of the $550,000 projected cost for the city to provide fire protection services in its response area—60 percent of which is reported to comprise unincorporated Walton County property. Kisela explained that any savings would be shared by the city and the county.
Under Walton County’s previous agreement with Freeport, Kisela said, the county had provided 35 to 40 percent of the cost for the services.
Kisela also provided details and figures for four different scenarios in which Walton County would serve the unincorporated area around Freeport without assistance from Freeport. One of those, in which Walton County would operate with a fire truck stationed at Freeport’s existing fire/EMS station, was estimated to be possible for between $74,658 to $196,658 per year, depending on whether part-time or full-time personnel were used. However, Kisela said the city had indicated that they would not agree to that plan.
Three three other scenarios called for the county setting up two new fire stations at a cost of $200,000 to $500,000 apiece. Total costs for those plans ranged from $356,000 (with the use of part-time personnel) to as much as $575,375.
Kisela noted that the county had budgeted approximately $206,000 for these expenses. He added that county special assessment funds for fire protection would be part of the portion that the county would be paying in the interlocal agreement.
District 5 Commissioner Cecilia Jones thanked Kisela for his willingness to “look at the big picture.”
District 3 Commissioner Larry Jones commented that a needs assessment is in order of all the county’s assets and infrastructure for fire response, certainly before building new stations is considered. He added that sometimes agreements better serve the county than the county providing those services on its own.
While stating her respect for the city and for Freeport Mayor Mickey Marse, District 4 Commissioner Sara Comander expressed qualms about the agreement. “I am struggling,” she said. Comander noted that the BCC had required all county officers and departments to “hold the line” on spending, including all fire departments. She added that, if the interlocal agreement were approved, she would have a hard time looking at those who had done as the BCC had asked and telling them that the BCC had held the line in this instance.
“It is frustrating,” Kisela agreed. However, he said that knowing the percentage of the Freeport service area that comprises unincorporated county made him more comfortable recommending the agreement.
“We have an obligation to protect those citizens living outside the city limit of Freeport,” District 2 Commissioner Kenneth Pridgen asserted. He added that the last thing he would want to do would be to put anyone’s life or property at risk.
Pridgen moved for approval of the interlocal agreement. The motion was approved in a 4-1 vote, with Comander voting no.
The $275,000 to be provided to the city by the county includes the forgiveness of a $69,322 loan, bringing that amount to $205,678 in cash, to be paid quarterly.
The agreement notes that the county’s payments are to come from “proceeds of the Fire Municipal Service Benefit Unit which are derived from the service area of the City and from other legally available revenues…”
A scope of services approved as part of the agreement provides for the city to respond to both fire and EMS calls in its service area.