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City Council, September 11

Fire Department to change practices. More changes likely
BlueCross/Blue Shield to administer health services. Decision on BZA ruling deferred
Marc Knapp

The Mayor announced some major changes relating to the City Fire Department on Tuesday night. The list of changes distributed to Council members ran to 7 pages and dealt with personnel, training, command, safety, communications and water supply. The Mayor stated that the changes had been implemented in the wake of the enquiries still underway. In response to a question from a Council member he noted that more changes were likely as the final reports of the investigations were completed.

Need for changes was obvious
We would be arrogant to say that the Mayor read our report on the fire, written a day or so after its occurrence. But we refer to our report to indicate how obvious it was that changes needed to be implemented. All of our recommendations have been implemented in the changes announced last night. In the light of these changes, Chief “Rusty” Thomas must be wondering about his earlier comment on the reponse of the fire department to the fire that he would do the same all over again. Interestingly, the Post & Courier has no report on the changes announced on Tueday night.

Chief Thomas joined the Mayor on the podium to make the presentation. With them were the newly appointed Safety Officer, Chief Kleskie and the Deputy Chief, Chief O’Donald. Most of the discussion revolved around command and procedures.

A summary of the changes is as follows
Personnel. Creation and appointments to positions of Assistant to the Chief, and Safety Officer.( Both these positions have been filled); Selection of a Public Information Officer; increase in the number of dispatchers to 2 on all shifts; increase in personnel to 3 at all times on ladder trucks.
Command. First arriving officer performs size-up and provides direction for all others, establishes exterior command post; Subsequent arriving higher ranking officer may assume command after command transfer process; rapidly implement personnel accountability system.
Training. Provide additional training for Department members in safety, survival, risk management, air management etc.; Provide Incident Safety Officer training for all command officers and HSO training for safety officer; Assure all new firefighters are trained and certified according to NFPA Firefighter II course to exceed SC standards
Safety. Reinforce appropriate use of protective clothing, seat belts: 2 in/ 2 out to be followed at all times.
Response and Communication. Increase initial response to 3 engines, 1 ladder; utilize 3rd engine as RIT; Eliminate 10 codes in communication and the tactical radio station.
Water Supply. Change in water supply SOP with near term transition to large diameter hoses; Use 1.5 inch hose or larger for interior attack and vehicle fires: change standards of nozzle configuration and flow for all hand lines;

The Mayor commented that the changes proposed were beyond those called by SC regulations. He said the aim was not to make the City Fire Department the best in the nation but “the best in the world”

Widows of Firemen thank the Mayor
Three widows of lost firemen were called to the podium at last night’s meeting. They thanked the Mayor and the City for what they had done One of the widows stated that she had met with the Mayor to discuss medical and health benefits which she described as being inadequate. She said the Mayor has agreed to improvements and other help. We didn't hear any discussion of the benefits that the Mayor had agreed to provide but interestingly, they were fully laid out in a front page story in today's P&C. Health insurance payments by the CIty were to cease this month but widows will now receive free health insurance for life, financed by the City.

The other matter before Council last night were the unveiling of the portrait of the Mayor by Mary White, the authorization of a new Medical services provider, and an appeal against a decision by the Board of Zoning Appeals .

Portrait of the Mayor displayed
The P&C reported on the portrait and all we will say is, like all of Mary White paintings, it is excellent.
City Goes with Blue Cross/Blue Shield
The City has chosen to go with Blue Cross/Blue Shield as the Medical Services Administrator. The budgeted cost for fiscal 2008 is $11.6 million and will represent a 4.4% increase in cost over the previous year. The increase is about half that projected for health service costs nationally for fiscal 2008. CFO Bedard assured Council that the benefits under the new service would be little different to those under the present plan. An increase in premiums was not likely and if there were an increase, it would be very small.
Appeal on BZA decision deferred
The matter of the appeal over a decision by the Board of Zoning Appeals (BZA) was long and convoluted. It drew many citizens from Radcliffeborough who spoke in favor of overturning the decision.

The issue is as follows. The BZA agreed to a “use” variance for the property at the corner of Rutledge and Vanderhorst Avenues. From our understanding, the property was previously used as doctors’ offices but reverted to a Residential zoning when the non-conforming use terminated with the cessation of occupancy 2 or more years or so ago. The SunTrust Bank late last year agreed to rent the building from the owners and to make substantial renovations. However, to be able to use the building as a bank office, it needed a “use” variance. This the BZA gave it but with some stipulations, particularly relating to the ATM machine that would be located in the bank.

Neighborhood changes its view
In a sense, this is pretty straightforward except the Neighborhood Association, which supported the “use” variance before the BZA hearing, has now changed its mind. Members say that they were not properly informed about what was going on or had missed meetings of the Neighborhood Association dealing with the bank issue.

Residents spoke of the impact of the bank on traffic, potential crime, and the further penetration of commercial zoning into the neighborhood. Ashley Hall which abuts the property also spoke of its concern about potential crime. The chance of violent robbery may be small but with a school building catering to 3 to 6 year olds next door, the school could not take chances.

Ashley Hall wants to buy the property
There were a few wrinkles. Ashley Hall wants to buy the property for $2 million but the offer has been rejected by the owner. The owner has leased it to SunTrust for $80,000 a year for 5 years. Everything else being equal, we would have thought the $2 million offer was superior but we don’t know what else SunTrust has agreed to do on the property. It certainly seems to have agreed to a substantial renovation and this could alter the economics.

Residential Zoning when SunTrust agreed to lease
Council members, residents, lawyers for the Neighborhood Association, and for SunTrust dissected the judgment of the BZA and questioned or supported its reasoning. But in our view, the most compelling reasoning was that given relating to the timing of the lease agreement. It seems SunTrust entered into an agreement when the zoning of the property had reverted back to Residential. It “bought” the property in effect with a residential zoning! So how can it turn around and seek redress through alleged hardship? Some Council members suggested that SunTrust has screwed up and did not undertake adequate due diligence. It was looking to the BZA to bail it out.

Does Council have authority to overturn decision?
We should also mention the legal questions asked. Did the Council have the authority to hear such an appeal? And as the Mayor and some Council members suggested, was it right that the Council should second guess a body whose members it had appointed?

Mayor successfully moves for deferment
Council members Bleeker and Lewis led the drive to overturn the decision of the BZA and made and seconded the motion respectively to do so. But the Mayor asked that the decision on the appeal be deferred to allow the parties to try and work something out. Council member Shirley suggested that the motion to defer did not have priority over the motion already on the floor. The Mayor said that Council precedent allowed this and he had his way. He also had his way on the voting with the majority of Council members voting for deferment. The final vote was 6 to 4.

Will the parties come to an agreement? Discussion outside City Hall last night suggested it was unlikely. So the matter probably will come back to Council at the end of the month. We expect and hope that the citizens’ desires are realized.

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