Area fire districts consider consolidation

DALLAS — The service Dallas Fire & EMS provides citizens cost taxpayers about $1.21 per $1,000 of assessed value.

To meet service levels the Dallas City Council approved in the 2016 fire master plan, the figure would have to increase to $2.65 per $1,000. The rate includes building a substation, training facility and upgrading the existing station, adding personnel, and additional operating costs associated with more facilities and staff.

Dallas Fire Chief Fred Hertel proposed a utility fee or operating levy to cover hiring the personnel needed to achieve those goals. He said EMS, which takes 80 percent of the department’s calls, is already stretched too thin.

Dallas’ ambulances cover 240-square miles. EMS costs about $1.8 million per year, more than $1.6 million of which it collects through fees for service. The city contributes about $150,000 in operating costs.

“If you don’t increase what we are doing today, the service level will continue to drop because the call volumes that we are receiving are out-pacing our capabilities,” Hertel said.

Hertel said the other option discussed, consolidation with Southwest Rural Fire Protection District and Sheridan Fire, would accomplish all service goals at a cost of $1.94 per $1,000 if it’s approved by voters.

Hertel said time may be running out on that option as districts around Dallas consider mergers.

“Some of the other entities have created parallel avenues forward for their situations that may leave Dallas out of the loop,” he said. “Not that we couldn’t get back into it at some point because we could, but there are things happening out there around us that are out of our control.”

One such parallel option is Polk Fire District No. 1, Southwest Polk and Sheridan, Hertel said.

Based on conversations he’s had with Polk No. 1 officials, that would leave Dallas on the outside looking in.

“Polk No. 1 doesn’t have any needs at this point. They are passing bond measures and levies and they are able to accomplish all for their performance goals,” Hertel said. “Why would they want to bring in somebody who can’t accomplish their goals?”

He said a consolidation of Polk No. 1, Southwest Polk and Sheridan would provide fire and EMS service to residents of that region for $1.99 per $1,000. Hertel added that he wasn’t sure if Sheridan would be interested in resuming talks with Dallas if that was the direction the council gave him.

“If we want to be the leader, the big dogs of any regional (district) moving forward, we need to be in control of this process. We are losing control of process in my professional opinion,” he said. “Somebody is going to create A-B-C fire district around us and we are going to become whatever they create.”

Polk No. 1 Chief Ben Stange said the three agencies continue to talk about consolidation and determine what the financial and operational benefits would be for each. Like Dallas, all three entities are wanting to find a way to provide a service level proscribed through a master plan or “standard of cover” document.

“Ultimately we want to be able to do this at a permanent sustainable tax rate that relieves each of us from continually having to go back to the voters again and again for bonds and levies,” Stange said.

He said at the beginning of the talks, Dallas was included, until it was found that city leadership was torn on how to proceed. Operationally, Dallas and Polk No. 1 work well together and said that will continue.

“We also recognize that bringing a fire department out from under the city would be an enormous feat with the potential to cause some extreme reactions,” he said.

Councilor Micky Garus said it’s difficult to decide on fire when the council also must consider what to do about its police station and streets.

“We are looking at the best interest for the citizens and looking at the entire picture and what can we really afford when all of these different things add together,” he said.

Garus said he doesn’t think Dallas would be left out even if it took a few months to get costs on other needs in the city. Hertel said the department could have its master plan updated with new performance goals, but that would take, at best, until fall to complete.

Councilor Kelly Gabliks asked Hertel to keep negotiating with other fire agencies and try again to include Polk No. 1 in discussions. She said she would prefer a district with Polk No. 1 and Southwest, but would consider the first proposal of Dallas, Southwest and Sheridan.

“I do not want to wait until we do the update to the master plan,” she said. “I do not want to give up on this because this is the future.”

Stange said he believes a district that includes most of Polk County would be best for the citizens, both in better service and lower cost.

“For now, there are a few of us who feel very comfortable with this process and would like to get that trajectory going in a way that would not prohibit future growth,” he said.

Councilor Bill Hahn agreed that Polk No. 1 and Dallas need to continue talking. He said consolidation is happening all around Dallas, with Tualatin Valley Fire & Rescue annexing fire departments in the Newberg area with voter approval.

Hertel said to the south, Lane Fire Authority, based in Veneta, already has a agreement with Santa Clara to merge operations and is in talks with Junction City.

“It’s happening all over the state,” Hertel said. “It’s the only way you can move forward on Oregon’s tax system, for a lack of a better way of putting it, unless you get those big increases like the $2.65.”

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