Fire Departments Face Crisis, Ponder Agreement

Agreement could save $500,000

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Hellsgate fire meeting

Rural fire departments must cut costs and cooperate to maintain existing services, Hellsgate Fire Battalion Chief Dave Bathke told his board members on Wednesday.

He concluded that without a joint operating agreement, the region’s five fire departments will have to slash services to survive. He advocated a joint powers agreement (JPA), if approved, the first of its kind in Arizona.

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Hellsgate Battalion Chief Dave Bathke on Wednesday said Rim Country fire districts must cooperate to maintain services.

Local fire chiefs plan to make similar presentations to each Rim Country fire board. The boards will ultimately decide whether to pursue a merger.

“With the times that we are facing, the fire chiefs need to find ways to survive,” Bathke said, pointing to the listening fire chiefs, including Pine-Strawberry Chief David Staub, Christopher-Kohl’s Chief Rob Jarvis and Houston Mesa’s Mark Essary.

No one attended to represent Payson, although being the largest fire department in the region could play a potentially crucial role in the effort.

“We need to come up with innovative ideas of what can we do to not only provide the same level, if not a better of level of service, while dealing with declining revenues and budget shortfalls that we face,” said Bathke.

For the last few years, Rim Country fire departments have seen their budgets shrink due to both state legislative cuts and declining property values.

Hellsgate faces another 3.1 percent drop in assessed valuations in the fiscal year that starts in July. Pine-Strawberry is budgeted to see a 5.3 percent decrease and Houston Mesa a 14 percent decrease.

“I have never seen anything like this in my life,” Bathke said, who worked in Wisconsin for years before joining Hellsgate 15 months ago. “If I didn’t know better, I would say the Legislature is trying to put fire districts out of business. We are facing tough times.”

With revenues falling, some districts are struggling to maintain service levels.

Bathke and other chiefs hope to effectively merge departments to consolidate resources, reduce overhead, cut administrative costs and share facilities.

The proposal would leave all the existing, community fire boards in place, but create a central JPA board. The public would elect members to the central board, just as they elect those on the current fire boards. The JPA board would then appoint one fire chief to oversee the entire district.

“We don’t need as many bosses,” he said. With one fire chief, there would be a common vision, not five organizations moving in five different directions.

There would be a deputy division chief and division chiefs responsible for things like the wildland urban interface, operations and training. The agreement would also provide a fire marshal and a full-time fleet mechanic. Bathke stressed these are just proposals and the boards could organize the JPA differently.

But the plan supported by the chiefs would significantly reduce overhead.

“Let’s stop duplicating things,” he said. “Why do we all have administrators? Why do we have multiple chiefs, multiple training officers and multiple fire marshals? We are in such a small area it is really redundant.”

Bathke said the plan would probably eliminate his own battalion chief position.

“I am standing up here pitching this to you, but guess what? My position is probably going to be eliminated. Should I be worried? Yeah I should be, but this is what is right for the community.”

The plan envisions no reduction in the number of firefighters. But cutting the number of administrators could save $500,000 if Payson, Pine-Strawberry, Houston Mesa, Hellsgate, Christopher-Kohl’s, East Verde and Round Valley all agreed on a JPA.

If Payson opts out, the remaining districts’ could still see a savings of $175,000, Bathke said.

One audience member asked if the other districts would continue with a JPA if both Pine-Strawberry and Payson opt out. Bathke said they could. “The fire department that we know today will not be what we see in five years,” he said. “It will either be gone or turned into something we mold.”

The Arizona Legislature has debated legislation to force districts to consolidate, but not adopted any mandate.

Bathke urged the districts not to wait on the state.

Many fire departments around the state are already exploring mergers because they can’t sustain the current fire model, he said. Possible mergers and consolidations include Camp Verde and Montezuma Rim Rock; Heber Overgaard and Forest Lakes; Lakeside, Show Low and Pinetop and Sierra Vista/Fry.

While none have created a JPA, the legislation to create such an agreement only passed in 2011. Several districts have been leery of serving as the guinea pig for a JPA.

However, JPAs have operated effectively in California, Florida and other states.

After the hour-long presentation, several board members had questions.

Hellsgate vice chair Charlie Conover wondered about the mechanics of the boards.

Bathke said if the fire boards agreed, they would jointly write a JPA with the help of a consultant.

Hellsgate board member Garrah Monnich asked if boards could withdraw from the agreement.

Bathke said they could with terms for leaving written into the charter.

Hellsgate board president Gary Norem asked about the possibility for more grant money.

Bathke said the federal government looks favorably on districts that regionalize and so would be more likely to approve grant funds.

A member of the P-S fire board wondered whether the plan would actually save money, given the number of divisional chiefs. Staub said the savings in eliminating expensive fire chiefs and administrators would exceed the cost of divisional chiefs.

The P-S board member then wondered if everyone would have to match Payson’s ratio of paramedics and firefighters.

Bathke said Pine-Strawberry could still set its own standards given its distance from the hospital.

In the coming month, Bathke and the other chiefs will give a similar presentation to other fire boards to see if they have enough interest to hold public forums and possibly hire a consultant.

The fire chiefs hope Payson town councilors support the idea. Former Payson fire chief Marty deMasi actively supported the consolidation talks, but the town pulled out of the talks last summer when he retired.

Payson Mayor Kenny Evans has told the Roundup that he supports the effort, but is concerned the smaller departments would fear domination by Payson if the town took the lead.

Bathke said the fire boards must still consider things like the structure of wages and benefits between districts. For instance, Pine-Strawberry and Payson rely mostly on full-time firefighters, while the smaller departments all depend heavily on reserve and volunteer firefighters.

“Even if we only break even with a JPA, that will be a win because we will have maintained service levels despite decreasing values and revenue,” said Bathke.

ANALYSIS OF AGREEMENT BY HELLSGATE BATTALION CHIEF DAVE BATHKE

Strengths

• Equal service – Every community would get the same level of service.

• Increased purchasing power – As a consortium, health insurance, workman’s compensation and equipment would cost less.

• Standardized fire and paramedic training – With one training officer, everyone gets the same training and learns best practices.

• Uniform tax rate.

• Common vision.

Weaknesses

• Resistance to change – Why change now? Because “it is not working anymore.”

• Loss of community identity – Some may feel a loss of ownership because their district’s name is not on the fire truck.

• Possible tax increase.

• Fear of the unknown. There will be growing pains, Bathke said.

• Fear of letting other districts share assets – “This is my truck, my station.”

• Possible adoption of international fire code.

• Costs to standardize and set up JPA: Need to hire a consultant to draw up a JPA.

Opportunities

• Better service model.

• Same procedures; best practices for everyone.

• Central control.

• Reduced administration and management roles.

• Improved firefighter health and safety initiatives.

• Increased buying power.

• Shared equipment costs.

• Eliminate duplicate costs.

• Increased grant opportunities.

• Get ahead of legislative initiative – “We can drive change, we can control our destiny up here and not have it shoved down our throats,” Bathke said.

Threats

• Lack of broad, community support – “Anytime you talk about change, people can take it as a threat.”

• Firefighters union.

• Elimination of positions.

• My Kingdom syndrome – Not wanting to give up control. He said people resisted the merger of Hellsgate, Mead Ranch and Tonto Village, but most now applaud the standardized service.

Comments

Ronald Hamric 9 months, 3 weeks ago

Having spent my Fire Service career in SoCal where my city was a participant in a JPA, I sense these Fire Officers are acutely aware of the needs which are driving this debate. One major difference in my personal experience and what these folks are confronting, is I worked in a large metropolitan region. As more of the "boomers" decide to retire into more rural environments, it behooves them to understand that they DO NOT bring metropolitan infrastructure/services with them, although they may expect such when they make their decision and settle in.

These small enclaves that these various Fire Departments are struggling to serve, mostly due to the forest interface environment, are at a greater direct fire risk than built up metro areas. Payson itself reflects a more metro area and is less exposed to what these other areas are sitting on, and that is of course a major, catastrophic forest fire such as Wallow, Dude, Rodeo-Chediski, etc. Again, it falls to those who make the conscious decision to settle into this environment to shoulder the "costs" associated with that decision. Those costs can be either do without, as some folks in Deer Creek found out belatedly, or they support the funding necessary to provide a level of fire protection they and their insurance carriers feel is adequate in consideration of the area. There simply is no free lunch!

I commend and support these folks in their endeavor to take whatever steps and make the necessary sacrifices they will make as independent agencies, and committed firefighters. They do not want those places they have dedicated themselves to protect, to experience what Deer Creel is currently. As was clearly laid out in this article, there will certainly be trade-offs and most assuredly changes coming, on that you can be sure. Ultimately it is those that will "pay the bills" that will decide this issue. The choice is yours Mr. & Mrs. Taxpayer.

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