Framework for fire service merger studied
After years of conflict and false starts, it appears talks between the city of De Soto and Johnson County Fire District No. 3 may lead to an agreement to merge the two departments.
Earlier this month, the fire district's board presented a copy of an agreement between the city of Lansing and the Leavenworth County Fire District, which it suggested could be the framework for an agreement for a merger. Mayor Dave Anderson asked the council members to consider the document for later discussion.
Talks between the two jurisdictions have languished for more than three years. The new push from the city's side came at the insistence of Councilman Ted Morse, who brought the issue up at repeated council meetings.
Morse's prompting led to a council discussion at which Anderson was able to get consensus on the city's negotiating position. It was agreed the city wanted a governing body that would reflect the city's position in regard to population and tax base and that the merged department would be a new entity that would replace both the city department and the rural district.
The goal was to create a governing body that would be responsible to local residents, Anderson said, questioning how effective that objective was met when fire board members were appointed by county commissioners, only one of which represented De Soto.
"That's the spear point -- taxation without representation," Anderson said.
The Leavenworth County agreement created a board on which three of the members were named by the Lansing City Council and the remaining members appointed by the board of trustees of two townships. The board then nominates and elects its officers.
The board has the power to make personnel decisions, levy taxes, issue bonds, acquire and dispose of property, lease and purchase needed equipment, and negotiate mutual aid agreements and contractual services.
While he hadn't fully considered all the board should be appointed, Anderson said the agreement seemed to satisfy the city's concerns.
"It sounds like what I'd like to do," he said. "Kent Dvorak brought it to my attention. I know the discussion of the (fire) board is to move in that direction.
"I see it as unifying our efforts rather than consolidation. That's always been the goal really -- unifying our efforts to provide the best fire protection at the best cost."
Fire board member Dvorak was equally optimistic that this time talks would lead to an agreement to merge the two departments.
"The consensus generally is we want to get this done," he said. "The conversation has always been, 'Is there representation on the fire board?' The way this particular plan is set up, there is representation."
Anderson and Dvorak agreed the Lansing agreement provided a concept and the actual means of naming board members might vary in a local agreement.
As for a timetable, both agreed with 2007 budgets in place for both departments, it made sense to shoot for 2008. But Anderson and Dvorak said it would take a dedicated effort to have an agreement in place for that year because the city council and fire board would have to start working on next year's budgets in four to five months.
The two men agreed 2008 could be a transition period in which both departments put their fire protection budgets in a pool for a combined effort.
Complicating any timeframe is the need for the Johnson County Commission to approve an agreement and negotiations with Olathe about how to deal with that part of the fire district within the Olathe city limits. One year ago following the latest request for a detachment of recently annexed land, Olathe assistant city attorney John Miller told the fire board that city wanted to end the constant piecemeal detachments and deal with its boundary with the fire district in a comprehensive way.
Dvorak said there was one more entity that needed to be dealt with during the merger discussions.
"There's that great big elephant on the western part of the district," he said. "Sunflower right now isn't part of any fire district. That issue ought to be closed up as part of this process."
Sunflower currently contracts for fire protection from District 3. Rather than continue a contractual arrangement, it should be determined if the Sunflower Army Ammunition Plant property should become part of the combined district or form its own fire district, Dvorak said.
The city of De Soto and the fire district have had a history of conflict that arose when the city failed to seek detachments of fire district property after numerous small annexations in the late 1980s and 1990s. After the city's large annexation was approved by the Johnson County Commission in 1999, the city council asked the county to detach all the newly annexed land. That request was rejected, leading to a lawsuit that was withdrawn the following year.
There have been off-and-on talks and a few meetings about a new arrangement since Anderson took office in 2001.
In another indication the present discussion is more serious, De Soto Fire Department Chief Kevin Ritter and Terry Zahner, his counterpart with the fire district, have had discussions about how the departments could operate after a merger. Earlier this month, Ritter said those discussions involved the "coverage matrix" of the combined department.