Fire districts to examine consolidation feasibility

DALLAS -- Local fire protection agencies are looking into the possibility of creating a regional fire district in an effort to streamline services.

DALLAS -- Local fire protection agencies are looking into the possibility of creating a regional fire district in an effort to streamline services.

Representatives from the city of Dallas and SW Polk Rural Fire Protection District have formed a committee to examine options for providing fire protection in the SW Polk district, Dallas and possibly Falls City.

The seven-person committee will spend at least one year studying the benefits and drawbacks of two consolidation options or leaving service as it is now.

"Budgets are becoming more and more tight and money is becoming an issue," said Bill Hahn, the Dallas fire chief who also serves as the spokesman for SW Polk.

Hahn said the economy is putting pressure on budgets for the cities and SW Polk. For Dallas, that is coupled with a decrease in Medicare and Medicaid payments to ambulance service providers that started in 2003.

Hahn said structure fire calls have decreased, but other calls -- such as those for alarms sounding, smoke and accidents -- have increased. He said the ambulance service calls have increased, with crews responding to

nearly 2,400 incidents total in the service area in 2010.

While all entities have separate equipment, funding and coverage areas, Hahn said they already combine resources through agreements, with Dallas' ambulance service helping other districts and SW Polk buying space in Dallas and Falls City's stations for its equipment.

Hahn said although the districts often work as a team on calls, there isn't an overlap in the sense that there are too many resources. He said the benefit in creating a consolidated district would be in financial stability of having just one district receiving funds and managing resources.

Falls City Fire Chief Bob Young, who isn't part of the committee, said at first glance he wasn't sure if there would be cost savings for his department in a consolidation plan. The city has a contract with SW Polk to keep the district's equipment in the city's station and firefighters from either entity can use the equipment.

He said, in essence, there are two departments working out of the same station -- but without duplication in personnel and equipment.

"Really, there is not much redundancy in cost," Young said. "I don't think the system's broken."

However, he doesn't object to the idea, given that the proposal saves money.

Hahn said the committee will examine the least expensive option first: having SW Polk absorb Dallas and perhaps Falls City and have all residents in the consolidated district pay the same tax rate as residents in the current SW Polk district -- about 86 cents per $1,000 of assessed value on properties. Hahn said if service can be paid for on that model, the committee would take that proposal to each entity, and if approved, to voters.

If adequate service can't be provided with the first model, the second option is to look into disbanding all three entities and form a new district and tax rate high enough to provide adequate service, also subject to voter approval. The third option would change nothing.

Hahn said he isn't certain the first option would be adequate, proposing a new district with a higher tax rate would be a tough proposition in the current economy.

The committee's work will be paid for by the Special Districts Association of Oregon, which will provide a consultant for the process.

That process may begin within the month after the last member -- a Dallas city councilor -- is named to the committee.

Hahn said the committee is giving itself plenty of time to examine all aspects of each proposal to assure that its final recommendation is thoroughly vetted before taking it to the cities and SW Polk.

"Unfortunately, because of the economy, the pie (budget) is only so big," he said. "Our goal with this committee is to look at all these avenues and figure which direction to go in."

Budget for each entity numbers:

* Dallas Fire Department -- $752,850, about 9 percent of the general fund (this total doesn't include grants awarded for specific purposes)

* Dallas Ambulance -- $1,126,374, about 12 percent of the general fund.

* Falls City -- $49,525, about 18 percent of the city's general fund.

* SW Polk Rural Fire Protect District -- $538,163 total budget.


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