TIFTON -- Tift County Commission Chairman Buddy Bryan said Tuesday the 85 trained members of the volunteer fire department are well-equipped to respond to fires despite comments from Tifton Manager Charles Howard.

"I thought it was a great idea from the mayor (Paul O. Johnson) that we not battle this out in the media," Bryan said. "Apparently Mr. Howell doesn't pay attention to the mayor."

Until the fiscal year began July 1, the City of Tifton and Tift County have operated fire protection services under a longstanding verbal agreement. That agreement called for the county to reimburse the city fire department for 40 percent of its operating budget. City officials asked for a written agreement.

Bryan told Assistant City Manager Billy George at a called County meeting July 1 that the commission had "taken issue" with some of the terms of the agreement.

One of those issues concerned county participation in future capital outlays. Bryan said the county would be opposed to that and the City operating fire services countywide as proposed in a recent study of functional consolidation.

George said that an interim agreement would "be fine with us."

"We just want to get a contract," George said. "We're proud of Tifton/Tift County fire services. They're acknowledged as one of the best, and we want that to continue."

Howell said in a telephone interview after the July 1 meeting that the City submitted an interim agreement on May 14 and left it up to the County's to initiate a meeting to discuss concerns with the City Council before the fiscal year ended June 30.

Monday in Council Chambers, Howell said first response fire protection to all residents, businesses and industries in the community should come from "full time, highly trained and equipped, professional firefighters complemented by volunteer firefighters."

Bryan said a late Monday afternoon email from County attorney Rob Reinhardt indicated that negotiations with the City on the issue of fire protection was going well. Bryan said he was surprised to read Howell's comments in Tuesday's issue of The Tifton Gazette.

"It was a terrific choice of words," Bryan said. "It just stomped the volunteer firemen who put their lives on the line."

Howell, in his address to City Council Monday, said that a formal written agreement is necessary, at least on an interim basis.

"But for the Grace of the City of Tifton, there would be no fire protection other than volunteers outside of the City as we speak," Howell said.

Howell said that City firefighters had responded to seven calls outside the city limits in seven days on a "good faith basis."

Bryan commented that the volunteers are as well-trained as the City firefighters. With 85 certified volunteer firefighters and 20 fire trucks in the County, citizens who lived outside the City of Tifton should not be concerned, Bryan said.

"One-half of us up here live in the County," Commissioner Charlotte Bedell said. "We have a great deal of interest in the issue of County fire protection."

Bryan said the County is reviewing several options to provide adequate fire protection. He didn't discount the possibility that a joint agreement could still be reached.

"I have a home and I want to protect it, but we need to do in a favorable (and economical) way," Bryan said.

Howell presented a revised version of the proposed interim fire suppression services agreement for City Council's consideration Monday and summarized it for council. The agreement would be retroactively effective as of July 1 and continue for a six-month period through Jan. 1, 2004.

The interim agreement calls for the county to pay $308,185 to the City for fire suppression services, which approximates 40 percent of the Tifton Fire Department's operations cost for the term of the agreement, according to Howell. Monthly payments from the County to the City would be in the amount of $51,364.17 and payment is due by the 10th of each month for the service during the preceding month.

"If payment is not received by the 10th day of each month, this agreement and service shall be immediately terminated," Howell said.

The agreement also called for the County to assess a special fire district, exclusive of the City of Tifton, for the County's proportional share of the cost.

The interim agreement, approved by Councilmen, said written consent of both parties occur no later than Dec. 1, 2003.

County Administrator Wayne Johnson and Bryan said they had not received a copy of the latest interim agreement Howell discussed Monday.

To contact reporter Angie Thompson, call 382-4321, ext. 208.

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