Wheat Ridge may merge next

Fire agency con­sol­i­da­tion in Colorado is driven by fi­nan­cial short­com­ings

The Denver Post - - NEWS - By John Aguilar

The push to­ward ever larger fire pro­tec­tion dis­tricts in Colorado could get a boost this year if a plan to merge Wheat Ridge’s nearly cen­tury-old fire­fight­ing force with the West Metro Fire Pro­tec­tion District goes for­ward.

The con­sol­i­da­tion of fire­fight­ing agen­cies in Den­ver’s western sub­urbs would be the lat­est such union in the state and the con­tin­u­a­tion of a well-worn trend to­ward greater fo­cus on re­gional, rather than mu­nic­i­pal, fire pro­tec­tion ser­vices.

“The vast ma­jor­ity of th­ese con­sol­i­da­tions are be­ing driven by the fire de­part­ments,” said Garry Briese, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the Colorado State Fire Chiefs. “They’re re­al­iz­ing that what de­part­ments are be­ing asked to do they can’t af­ford to do it.”

Fi­nan­cial hur­dles led to En­gle­wood’s de­ci­sion last year to con­tract out its fire and med­i­cal emer­gency ser­vices to Den­ver, fol­low­ing in the foot­steps of Sheri­dan and Glen­dale. There are now only a hand­ful of metro area cities — al­most all with pop­u­la­tions of 100,000 or more — that still have their own mu­nic­i­pal fire de­part­ments, ac­cord­ing to the Colorado Mu­nic­i­pal League.

Else­where in Colorado, the Du­rango Fire Pro­tec­tion District in 2014 as­sumed the du­ties of three fire de­part­ments in the state’s south­west cor­ner, while Colorado River Fire Res­cue was cre­ated in 2012 from the merger of the Burn­ing Moun­tains and Ri­fle fire pro­tec­tion dis­tricts.

“What they’ve found over time is that a more ef­fec­tive and more cost-ef­fi­cient ser­vice comes from do­ing it on a larger scale,” Briese said.

Pro­po­nents of con­sol­i­da­tion say it leads to more op­er­a­tional ef­fi­cien­cies, less du­pli­ca­tion and greater economies of scale. Fleets can be scaled back, com­mu­ni­ca­tion sys­tems stream­lined and per­son­nel de­ployed more eas­ily to where they are needed.

“What you see in the long term (with con­sol­i­da­tion) is cost avoid­ance,” said Ken Watkins, pres­i­dent of the Colorado State Fire Chiefs and the fire chief in Grand Junc­tion.

But with con­sol­i­da­tion comes ag­gra­va­tion, es­pe­cially from those who view their lo­cal fire depart­ment as a civic trea­sure and sym­bol of

pub­lic ser­vice in its purest form.

En­gle­wood City Man­ager Eric Keck came face to face with an­gry res­i­dents and fire­fight­ers who re­sisted the idea of dis­band­ing the 108-year-old in­sti­tu­tion as a mat­ter of civic pride.

“The num­ber of com­plaints died down in late 2015, but I am cer­tain that there are res­i­dents that are still un­happy about the move,” Keck said last week. “How­ever, the move to Den­ver Fire helped the city to also stave off a fis­cal dilemma that would have ne­ces­si­tated some form of ser­vice level cuts.”

Keck said the new ar­range­ment, for which En­gle­wood pays Den­ver $5.4 mil­lion a year, has gone “ex­tremely well” since En­gle­wood fire sounded its fi­nal tone on May 31. More ef­fec­tive wa­ter res­cues, bet­ter haz­ardous ma­te­ri­als re­sponse and more ju­di­cious ve­hi­cle dis­patch­ing to a scene are just some of the im­prove­ments Keck has noted.

He told city lead­ers last year that main­tain­ing a stand-alone En­gle­wood force would cost $18.6 mil­lion, largely due to a long list of ag­ing equip­ment, ve­hi­cles and sta­tions that needed re­plac­ing.

Bob Olme, chief of the Wheat Ridge Fire Pro­tec­tion District, said de­spite get­ting voter ap­proval for a mill levy in­crease in 2014, he would have to con­tem­plate seek­ing an­other injection of fund­ing by 2020 to re­main fi­nan­cially sta­ble.

Tran­si­tion­ing the 36-per­son force from a mostly vol­un­teer or­ga­ni­za­tion to ca­reer staff has ac­counted for the bulk of the cost in­creases, the chief said.

Con­sul­tants from Emer­gency Ser­vices Con­sult­ing In­ter­na­tional, in a 256-page re­port is­sued in late 2015, rec­om­mended a merger “be­cause of the economies of scale as­so­ci­ated with plan­ning and im­ple­ment­ing a re­sponse sys­tem over a large area.”

Merg­ing with West Metro, with 250,000 peo­ple un­der its pro­tec­tive um­brella, wouldn’t cost the 30,000 peo­ple in Wheat Ridge’s cov­er­age area more in taxes as both agen­cies have es­sen­tially the same mill levy.

“It’s one of those rare oc­ca­sions where the stars aligned and you can pro­vide greater depth of ser­vice at no higher cost,” Olme said. “If I can get ex­pan­sion of ser­vices at no ad­di­tional cost, I think it’s the re­spon­si­bil­ity we have as ad­min­is­tra­tors to do it.”

But the chief is mind­ful that long­time res­i­dents may re­sist los­ing the Wheat Ridge moniker on the district’s trucks and three sta­tions. Even though the agency is not a mu­nic­i­pal fire depart­ment in the tra­di­tional sense — it also serves Moun­tain View and Edge­wa­ter and not even all of Wheat Ridge — it has been around in some form since 1926.

It was, in fact, fire­fight­ers with the Wheat Ridge Fire Depart­ment who con­trib­uted funds to­ward the city’s 1969 in­cor­po­ra­tion elec­tion.

“Hav­ing a fire depart­ment with the same name as the com­mu­nity can be very im­por­tant,” Olme said. “We’re sen­si­tive to that.”

The ques­tion of pub­lic buy-in is so sen­si­tive that the boards for Wheat Ridge and West Metro are plan­ning to put the ques­tion of a merger to a vote of the peo­ple, even though they don’t have to.

“We want peo­ple to be com­fort­able and sat­is­fied that it is the right de­ci­sion,” Olme said.

The elec­tion would likely be this fall.

Don Lom­bardi, West Metro’s chief, said his agency would honor the lo­cal com­mu­nity by ab­sorb­ing most of the fire­fight­ers from the Wheat Ridge Fire Pro­tec­tion District once the merger is com­plete.

“We do un­der­stand the her­itage of each district,” he said. “Those things are not lost on us.”

AAron On­tiveroz, The Den­ver Post

En­gi­neer An­thony DiTul­lio, right, and fire­fighter Wes­ley Percefull wash a fire en­gine. Wheat Ridge re­cently com­mis­sioned an anal­y­sis look­ing into whether the depart­ment should merge with West Metro.

En­gi­neer An­thony DiTul­lio washes a fire en­gine at the Wheat Ridge Fire Depart­ment.

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