Firefighter cuts may raise Atlanta insurance rates

Homeowners could see costs rise if city's public protection rating drops

Atlanta homeowners could pay as much 10 percent more for their insurance unless the city hires more firefighters and shows its training is up to snuff, Georgia Insurance and Fire Safety Commissioner John Oxendine warned Monday.

Oxendine announced the preliminary findings of a report by the New Jersey-based Insurance Services Office that found Atlanta's public protection classification rating dropped from 2 to 4 on a scale of 10 with 1 being the best rating. Atlanta has nine months to make changes that will allow the city to keep its current rating or drop to a 3.

Many companies use the rating to help determine how much homeowners should pay for insurance. The ISO inspects everything from the number of firefighters a government has to the location of its fire hydrants.

Oxendine used the report to blast the city for several rounds of budget cuts last year that resulted in closing a fire station in the West End neighborhood and "brownouts," the practice of temporarily moving firefighters to other parts of Atlanta to handle calls for service.

"[The rating drop] can be stopped by the City Council by saying life safety is a priority," Oxendine, who is running for governor, told reporters.

City officials said they are confident they will maintain the current rating and noted the 4 rating would be higher than most places in Georgia and the same as Oxendine's home county of Gwinnett.

"While we are disappointed in the slight drop in rating, we are proud to be one of the highest ranked cities in Georgia," Fire Rescue Chief Kelvin Cochran said in a statement.

Oxendine said Atlanta maintaining its 2 rating will be a challenge.

"They are quite deficient," he said.

Oxendine asked for ISO's review in response to city budget cuts. The ISO has not reviewed Atlanta since 1974, the year Maynard Jackson took office as the city's mayor and Atlanta Braves slugger Hank Aaron broke pro baseball's home run record. The commissioner also asked for the ISO to conduct of review of DeKalb County, which hadn't been inspected since 1990.

Oxendine told reporters the preliminary report found Atlanta's engine companies should have at least two more firefighters. He also said the city couldn't produce all of its training records, which lowered its score.

David Colmans, who runs a group that provides information for most of Georgia's largest insurance companies, said the report shows Atlanta needs to improve some of its processes. Colmans, executive director of the Georgia Insurance Information Service, talked to three insurers Monday about what a 4 rating would mean for homeowners. One said the drop would result in a 5 percent homeowner rate increase. The second said there would be no difference. A third said the owner of a home worth $250,000 would pay an additional $85, a 6.6 percent increase.

Michael Wagoner, who has been interested in Atlanta's fire department operations after the city closed a fire station in his north Atlanta neighborhood in December, said he was disappointed by the findings, particularly as the council considers a property tax increase. City leaders are considering a tax hike to end employee furloughs on police officers and firefighters.

"It's going to cost everyone more money," said Wagoner, president of the Berkeley Park Neighborhood Association.

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