DALLAS — The Dallas City Council, in a close vote, directed City Manager Greg Ellis to request proposals to perform a feasibility study exploring forming a regional fire district.
The 5-4 vote took place at Monday’s council meeting following last week’s joint meeting with the boards of Sheridan Fire, Southwest Polk Rural Fire Protection District, West Valley Fire District and four members of the council.
The Jan. 22 joint meeting had a presentation by Lane Fire Authority Chief Terry Nye and Siuslaw Valley Fire and Rescue Interim Chief Steve Abel. Both Nye and Abel have lead or are leading consolidation efforts in other fire districts.
Both said a feasibility study conducted by an objective third party is recommended before the districts and the city embark on a joint future.
“We needed to get an outside opinion about was it feasible for the original two districts … to do some kind of consolidated operation,” Nye said. “I think that was one of the best investments we ever made. I strongly recommend you do that.”
Councilor Kelly Gabliks said the city should take that advice.
“I don’t think we should make any changes to our equipment and our personnel until we get the results of an independent, third-party feasibility study,” she said.
Gabliks said movement toward a district shouldn’t move so fast that the city can’t put more research into it.
“We shouldn’t be in such a hurry,” she said. “We need to have the data. We need to have information so we can make the best decision for our citizens.”
Councilor Jennie Rummell said the fire department has already collected data.
“We had a fire chief who compiled a lot of data,” Rummell said. “We’ve talked about not getting things for the fire department because of cost, and now we want to do a feasibility study for the same data that we already have.”
The vote didn’t approve a study, but requesting proposals to perform a study, which will be reviewed at a future meeting.
On Jan. 22, Nye and Abel provided information on the consolidation efforts they’ve been involved in.
Nye was the fire chief of Lane County Fire District No. 1 when talks with Lane Rural Fire & Rescue began. The two entities consolidated operations through contracts for almost five years before asking voters to approve a full merger in November 2016. Now the new entity, Lane Fire Authority, has established an agreement with Santa Clara Fire District.
“So, what has this done for us? I won’t say it saved us money. What it has done is eliminated some redundancy,” Nye said.
Eliminating duplication — multiple fire chiefs, fire marshals and training officers — allowed the agency to provide better coverage, have more career staff and place an ambulance where there one wasn’t before.
“We’ve gained versatility,” he said. “It’s just really allowed us to move resources around.”
Nye said for a merger to work, a common goal is needed.
“You can’t always be worried about ‘what is right for us.’ You have to be willing to set that aside and be willing to look at what is best for the whole organization,” he said. “Our boards are very big on doing what is right for the area. That is the key success. The other key to our success is people being willing to set egos aside.”
Abel has been part of leading consolidations between Pleasant Hill and Goshen fire departments, and is working with Siuslaw Valley Fire & Rescue and Western Lane Ambulance District to combine operations.
“If you decide to do something, go slow. Take it a step at a time and see how it’s working” he said. “Don’t jump in with both feet. Go slow.”
Nye added that the state of Oregon doesn’t define a fire authority, so how it functions is up to the discretion of those involved. Mergers don’t have to mean forming a new district, but combining operations to reduce costs, he said.
“If it doesn’t work out, there’s a way to get out of it,” Nye said. “You can make it do whatever it is that you need to accomplish.”
The pair took questions from the audience.
Micky Garus, who lives outside of Dallas, said citizens won’t get a say in the process unless they are asked to approve a new taxing district. He said he’s concerned for how the fire authority will spend money before citizens have the right to vote on a new district.
“It could be several years that you are a fire authority before you actually get to the district level. As you add to those responsibilities and the expenses keep increasing,” Garus asked, “where does that extra money come from?”
Nye noted that he’s not been part of a merger involving a city, but that citizens can review and have a say the public budget process of the separate entities.
“The fire authority didn’t have its own budget committee, so each of the districts had their budget committee meeting and budget hearing required by law, and they approved their district budget, and they approved their share of the fire authority budget,” Nye said.
Polk County Commissioner Craig Pope said he would like to see numbers on how much service can be improved.
“I really want us to be talking about real numbers and real people and what does it take,” he said.