Archive for Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Goal set to consolidate local fire services this year

January 9, 2008

It required De Soto City Attorney Patrick Reavey to revisit state statutes, but it appears a consolidation of the De Soto Fire Department and Johnson County Rural Fire Department No. 3 is back on track for a hoped Jan. 1, 2009 completion.

Reavey proposed the city of De Soto and Johnson County Commission ask the Kansas Legislature to tweak statutes allowing the consolidation of government entities to create greater efficiency and one governing the consolidations of fire districts and departments so that the two local fire agencies could be joined.

The city attorney re-visited state statues after city council members objected Jan. 3 a proposed method to consolidate the departments that would have had the fire district absorb the city fire department.

"I just assumed when we talked about consolidation, we would consolidate and both current departments would go away and we'd have something new" Councilman Tim Maniez said. "What you're telling me is we are going to be absorbed by the fire district. That's the first time I've heard that, and that's not what I thought we were talking about."

Reavey presented the second consolidation option at a special meeting Tuesday of council members and Fire District Chairman Kent Dvorak, District Fire Chief Terry Zahner and District Operations Manager Mark Billquist.

Like the first consolidation option that council members objected to, the second alternative Reavey proposed Tuesday - and that council members found acceptable -- would create a new board to manage the new department. It was agreed Tuesday the five-member board would have two seats appointed by the city, two by the Johnson County Commission and one seat appointed alternately by the council and commission.

The board would have taxing authority, the right to issue debt and other oversight powers.

An interlocal agreement between the city and Johnson County would nail down details of the consolidation not addressed in the legislation, Reavey said.

Yet to be resolved is what to name the new department, but there was consensus that to stay true to the spirit of consolidating to something new De Soto and Johnson County should be avoided in the new name, although that too would require legislative action.

"I think the one name we all agree we don't want is Sunflower Fire District," Dvorak said. More seriously, he said he hoped the consolidation would convince Sunflower Redevelopment Inc. - for which the fire district provides contracted service - to become part of the consolidated district.

At the suggestion that some of the city's residents would be upset De Soto might not be a part of the consolidated department's formal name, Councilman Ted Morse said those people should consider what they gained.

"Tell them they are getting a more efficient service; tell them they are getting it cheaper," he said.

At the De Soto City Council meeting Jan. 3, De Soto City Administrator Pat Guilfoyle made that point with a presentation of financial projections contrasting the cost of maintaining two fire districts to one unified districts.

Guilfoyle's report found that while a consolidated district may afford some savings in operating costs the real benefit would be that capital improvements would be more affordable with consolidation

The De Soto Fire Department that provides service to what is basically old-town De Soto and doesn't include such new development as the Timber Trails and Timber Lakes subdivisions, could see a declining mill levy through 2012 if it did not make any capital improvements, Guilfoyle reported. The fire district's mill levy would increase from about 9.5 mills to 11.5 mills over the same time span with further capital improvements because of current debt obligations.

But Guilfoyle said that wasn't realistic when the De Soto Fire Department was in need of a new fire truck and station. If the De Soto Fire Department made a $2 million capital investment, its mill levy would jump more than 5 mills from the current 10.5 levy.

Guilfoyle found much the same to be true in the fire district where the same $2 million investment would increase the mill levy from 9.5 mills to about 13.5 mills.

By contrast, a unified district could make the same $2 million investment with a mill levy of from 11.5 to 12 mills, Guilfoyle said.

The proposed consolidation would have to get the blessing of Johnson County Commission, which Dvorak said wouldn't be a problem.

"What I've heard is they want consolidation to happen so they never have to deal with it again," he said.

To accomplish the consolidation by Jan. 1, 2009, the proposed legislative changes would have be introduced on the floor of the Kansas House or Senate by the first week of March.

Guilfoyle said other hurdles to be cleared would be agreement on the organization structure of the new department. That would have to be done before a budget for the new department was drafted this summer, he said.

The organizational discussions, which will involve the selection of a chief, derailed past consolidation talks and could prove difficult, Maniez said.

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