June 19, 2019 11:12:44 AM
Mayor Robert Smith cast the deciding vote Tuesday evening to send himself and four firefighters on a trip to Atlanta that will cost the city more than $9,000.
A city contingent is required to attend the Fire Rescue International Conference in August to complete Columbus Fire and Rescue's process for national re-accreditation. CFR became the first municipal fire department in Mississippi to earn national accreditation in 2014. Earlier this year, a peer assessment team with the Center for Public Safety Excellence recommended the department for 5-year re-accreditation, and the last step remaining is for city leaders to appear at the conference in Atlanta to answer questions from a panel.
Attending with the mayor will be CFR Chief Martin Andrews, Assistant Chief Duane Hughes, Accreditation Manager Alan Lewis and Chief of Training Mike Chandler. The city also will pay for a CPSE peer assessor team leader to attend.
"Each person is assigned a specific task. If you have the opportunity to observe the interview process, it's no way one person can know everything," Smith said. "From my standpoint, there are questions they will ask the mayor. The chief can't answer questions for the mayor, and they'll ask questions I can't answer for the chief. There are questions concerning the fire department, why I think the department deserves to be accredited. They'll ask if you're willing to finance the duty requirements if you become re-accredited.
"There are numerous questions that they ask," he added. "If I didn't have to go, I wouldn't."
National accreditation is a reflection on CFR's equipment, personnel training and response times and contributes to its State Fire Rating -- which impacts homeowner's insurance for Columbus residents.
Councilmen, however, knotted 3-3 on whether to approve travel for so many city representatives to the conference, giving Smith the power to break the tie.
Ward 6 Councilman Bill Gavin, along with Ward 2's Joseph Mickens, led the vocal dissent to the travel request, citing the city's troubled financial condition -- two consecutive years of deficits exceeding $800,000 and the possibility of depleting their operating fund reserves by Sept. 30 -- and what they believe needs to be a more disciplined effort to save money. Stephen Jones, of Ward 5, also voted against the trip.
Gavin, for his part, directly challenged Andrews Tuesday when he made the request, asking if national re-accreditation was even worth the trouble.
"I talked to a couple insurance people about the accreditation and fire rating going down," Gavin said. "In my opinion, it wasn't that great of a deal. It wasn't that much money that (insurance) went down. If you have a $200,000 house, it might be $25 or $30 a year they are saving. That's what the insurance people told me. We are spending a ton of money; this trip is $9,360. We are spending a lot of money to keep accreditation. If we lose it, we didn't have it before (2014), and we did OK."
Andrews fired back and said it would be an embarrassment for CFR and Columbus if the department was not prepared and lost its accreditation.
"If we don't know the right answers to the questions, we will not get re-accreditation," Andrews said. "I can't say it no clearer. It's that simple. If I don't answer the question right or don't have the people there we are not getting re-accredited. This is not a game. This is a very nerve-wracking thing as a chief. I'm very nervous. These people don't play. They'll ask you questions you ain't never thought about.
"If we don't have the right people there we are not being re-accredited," he added. "I'm not going to make this city embarrassed."
Mickens asked if the city could afford to scale back the attendance for the conference and challenged the notion Andrews couldn't speak to all the necessary details about his department.
"Sending six people, I can't justify that," Mickens said. "I don't think you need everybody there to answer questions. If you're the chief, you ought to know the answers."
Andrews said CFR has already cut its training budget by $25,000 this fiscal year, and the cost of this conference will come from that savings. Moreover, CFR originally planned to attend a March conference in California for re-accreditation but waited for the Atlanta option so it would be less expensive.
Ward 3's Charlie Box, along with Ward 1's Gene Taylor and Ward 4's Fred Jackson, approved the travel.
Box, speaking to The Dispatch after the meeting, said re-accreditation is worth the cost.
"I don't want to lose accreditation," Box said. "It's too important to this city."
Jones told The Dispatch after the meeting he wanted to table the discussion until he could look at more information. What Andrews presented, Jones said, was not enough to convince him.
"It wasn't that I was totally against it, we are just trying to save money," Jones said. "I think it's a great thing that we are accredited. I just needed a little bit more to think about it. I just needed a little bit more to convince me."
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