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Munford, Atoka fire dept. calling it splits

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On Tuesday, Atoka made history by formally creating its own fire department, a move necessitated by Munford's withdrawal from the joint fire protection plan earlier this month.

In a letter dated June 6, Munford Mayor Dwayne Cole informed Atoka Mayor Daryl Walker that the city's board had decided a proposal by the Town of Atoka that would add two firefighters to the combined department was "unacceptable."

"My board and I feel that the draft contract presented … simply shifts the command staff to Atoka with a 60/40 split in all expenses," Cole wrote.

Atoka's proposal, said town administrator Brian Koral, would utilize new revenue from last year's local option sales tax increase to help fund equipment, manage capital replacement costs and share a command staff.

Staffing the department has been a concern for both cities for years and Koral said the proposal addressed it.

"This agreement would set minimum staffing levels," he said. "It freed us from having to agree every year … so we're not, five years from now, fighting about adding a guy, or a girl, here or there."

Though, in the coming fiscal year, Atoka would provide the majority of funding, Koral said Munford wanted to retain the managerial weight.

In his letter, Mayor Cole noted that Munford has "a history and heritage" of providing "excellent service to our respective citizens for many, many years."

However, the combined department, which has been a cost-effective solution for both cities for decades, will split on July 1, 2015.

Munford made the decision first, Atoka concurred.

"Our consensus is to move to two departments with a strong automatic aid agreement, which will accomplish most of our original goals," wrote Cole.

In Tuesday's special called meeting of the Board of Mayor and Aldermen, Koral said he believed Munford's intent was "fuzzy."

"What their letter does not do is it does not formally indicate they're withdrawing from the contract," he said. "When you look at the contract for fire services, section five very clearly spells out how that is to happen. If that's the intent, and if they're being fuzzy about the language, I think we should be clear about the language. We're heading in our own direction."

The decision passed unanimously, effectively creating the Atoka Fire Department and giving the town a year to prepare.

"We have to have everything in place to begin operating 53 weeks from today," Koral said. "Sounds like a long time away, but it's not as far as it sounds."

Though the cities are at odds about staffing and funding the department, Mayor Walker said the partnership had been good.

"But it's like a marriage where the partners want to go their separate ways," he said.

In response to a citizen's question about the quality of service to expect during the transition period, Atoka officials said they expect the Munford/Atoka Fire Department to operate on the same or better level and, beginning in 2015, they'll have a mutual aid agreement, much the way the cities' police departments rely on each other at times.

"Our relationship isn't ending," Koral said. "It's changing, but it isn't ending."

AFD's Washington
Following the decision to formally withdraw and create its own fire department, the board approved a job description for AFD's first employee: its chief.

"It's a very critical position, he's going to be  the George Washington of our fire department," Koral said. "He'll set a precedent."

The position will be announced in the coming weeks and city leaders anticipate making a hire soon.

The new fire chief will not be in an operational role until July 1, 2015, but his duties will include personnel recruitment, purchasing equipment, writing grants and preparing the department for service.

Closed meeting?
Though both cities have decided to divide their combined fire department, Munford may have violated the state's Sunshine Law in the process.

It is illegal for members of a city's governing body to discuss and decide on policy when not in an open session, a fact brought up during Tuesday's meeting by Atoka Alderman Barry Akin.

"How did they come up with this?" he asked after Cole's letter was discussed. "To the best of your knowledge, did they have a public meeting or anything?"

Munford's regularly scheduled meetings of the Board of Mayor and Aldermen fall on the fourth Monday of each month, with the meeting dates since the fire committee's April 22 meeting falling on April 28, May 27 and June 23.

There has been no discussion of the fire services contract during these meetings.

Cities do have the option of holding special called meetings. These require public notice, as outlined in T.C.A. 8-44-101, however this publication has not received any such notice nor has the advertisement of such a meeting been discovered with any other local publications.

An email to the mayor with questions pertaining to the matter went unanswered at press time.

Votes made in closed meetings are nullified, however, in this case, with both parties agreeing to the split, the outcome would not be affected.

atoka, atoka fire department, firefighters, munford, munford fire department
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