Sheridan fire, Dallas discuss contract

Sheridan Fire District wants to join Southwest Rural Fire District and Dallas Fire.

Photo by Emily Mentzer
Sheridan Fire District wants to join Southwest Rural Fire District and Dallas Fire.

DALLAS — The Sheridan Fire District and Dallas Fire Department will explore a contract that would have Dallas provide Sheridan with administrative services and consolidate resources.

The contract would save Sheridan from having to hire a permanent chief to replace Interim Chief Jim Stearns, and could lead to a larger consolidation with Southwest Polk Rural Fire Protection District, Dallas, and Sheridan. Other fire districts may want to join as well, Stearns said.

Dallas Fire Chief Fred Hertel said the contract would be like the new agreement the city has with Southwest Polk to provide the district with administrative services.

“Our finance department is operating the financial services for all of Southwest Polk Fire District,” he said at a recent Dallas City Council work session meeting. “We’ve added more in-depth training.”

Stearns works for the Special Districts Association of Oregon and stepped in after Sheridan’s former fire chief resigned. He retired from Hermiston fire, and since has served as the interim fire chief at several agencies in the state.

“Sheridan wanted someone to come in because their chief had retired, and they wanted to take a look at whether they needed to hire another chief at this point or is there another way to do this,” he said. “Is there a better way to do business here?"

He said Sheridan’s finances — a permanent tax rate of $1.11 per $1,000 of assessed value on properties, with an extra 35 cents per $1,000 that requires voter approval every five years — isn’t keeping up with costs. Volunteers are harder to recruit, given that they are expected to undergo the same training as career firefighters, Stearns added.

“We are being called upon to do more and more, and the bottom line isn’t growing as fast as the demand on services,” Stearns said. “We’ve seen a lot of consolidation, mergers, annexations, or two or more districts working together in one management structure.”

Hertel said Southwest Polk has funding for capital expenses — fire stations, equipment — thanks to a 15-year bond, but it has the same problem with operating costs. Dallas Fire will need more money if it wants to improve upon its current 18-minute fire response time. To meet the council’s goal of cutting that in half would eventually require $2 million per year to pay for staff, Hertel said. That translates to between $2 and $2.25 per $1,000 of assessed value.

Stearns said incorporating the city, Southwest, and Sheridan, the same could be done for less than $2 per $1,000.

“Our goal is to see if this works through a contractual relationship and down the road, if it does, reorganize it into one permanent authority," Stearns said.

Hertel and Stearns invited Polk Fire No. 1 in conversations and believe other districts in the area would have interest.

Councilor Kelly Gabliks asked if the contract would force Dallas to hire more staff. Hertel said two administrators in Sheridan would remain, but it wouldn’t have to hire a fire chief, which would help pay for management restructuring.

“Everyone’s job description would slightly change,” Hertel said.

The council approved exploring a contract, and the pros and cons of forming a new district.

Councilor Bill Hahn, Dallas’ former fire chief, urged the council to consider the concept, saying that fire chiefs for the last two decades have warned past councils that fire department costs would increase as volunteerism declined.

“The comment was always, 'thanks very much. Your volunteers are wonderful. They are outstanding,'” Hahn said. “They do an impeccable service to us, but no money was ever provided or put aside. Twenty years down the road we’re in the position we are mainly because of our decisions.”

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