Fire, ambulance exploring merger plans
In a surprising move, the chiefs of both the Jefferson County Fire Department and Emergency Medical Services came out in favor of merging the two districts at a joint work session Sept. 26.
The work session was in response to the draft report from a study conducted by Matrix Consulting Group, which was hired in March to consider "the most practical and efficient manner" for the two districts to provide emergency services. The consultants released their "draft" final report on July 25, recommending that the two districts merge.
"I don't think anyone, on either board was happy with (the report)," said Fire Chief Brian Huff, noting that there were issues with many of the details. "We relayed that back to Jeff (Rasmussen), and he relayed it back to Matrix."
County Administrator Jeff Rasmussen said that he, Huff, EMS Chief Mike Lepin, and City Administrator Gus Burril met several times to review the draft report. "We went through it page by page," Rasmussen said, pointing out that the report used old budget numbers, and overestimated revenue growth for EMS.
The study, which cost $49,500, was commissioned by the county, which paid $22,510 toward the study, the city, which paid $20,000, and the fire district, which paid $6,990. JCEMS was not able to contribute.
At the work session, moderated by Katrina VanDis, the two districts discussed the pros and cons of a merger.
Paul Sumner, attorney for JCEMS, commented, "We've turned from a volunteer, primarily, to a mainly paid staff."
The JCEMS District is larger than the fire district, but has no taxing authority, receives no tax dollars, and is entirely fee-based. In May 2017, the district went out for a 41 cents per $1,000 permanent tax levy, but the measure failed by a vote of 1,766 no to 871 yes.
"Our volunteers really aren't volunteers; they get paid," said Lepin, noting that it costs $195 to recertify as a paramedic. "It's a lot to ask for a volunteer."
Currently, the district has about 40 paid employees, including office staff, allowing for 24-hour-per-day coverage.
The fire district, which is smaller, has taxing authority, and collects about $1.18 per $1,000 in assessed value, which is unchanged since the rate was established in 1997-98.
The fire department has six permanent, full-time personnel, who are on duty from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Friday. After hours response is on a voluntary basis.
Huff said that since the report came out, he and Lepin have been meeting frequently. "There's a lot of information we don't have," he said. "We threw out the (study's) organizational chart. We don't think it works."
The new chart would have Huff remain as the chief and fire marshal and Lepin as deputy chief, both overseeing several captains and teams of firefighters who would also be paramedics, as well as the student program, which has six positions.
For the 2019-20 budget year, they would likely seek a combined tax levy of $2.70 per $1,000 of assessed value — which would mean $405 in taxes for a $150,000 home.
"That allows us to buy equipment, so we don't have to do an equipment or apparatus levy," said Huff. "An average structure engine is $500,000."
Lepin said that ambulances are about $180,000 for four-wheel drive vehicles. "We're paying them off through special district loans."
JCEMS board member Louise Muir asked whether the rate would be adequate. "I have to be convinced that it's best to do for both of them," she said. "If combined, how are you going to sell a new building? If this is only the beginning of asking for money, I don't know how you're going to do it. That's my biggest concern."
Lepin responded that they wouldn't need a new building, "We'd just be moving things around."
"We can put three ambulances in here without moving a thing," said Huff, adding that the Bureau of Land Management trucks currently at the fire hall could be moved to another location. "Five would all be under cover, somewhere."
"Culver would be my biggest concern; it's old, it doesn't have sprinklers and it's shared with the city," he said, referring to the Culver City Hall, which shares space with the Culver fire station. "I don't see us having to build a fire station any time soon. And there's capital outlay in the budget."
Steve Heydon, vice chairman of the JCEMS board, complimented the chiefs on their efforts. "I think they've done a good job of working through these things," he said. "But there are a lot of people who are poor ... You're asking for money. We'd better have all our ducks in a row."
Mike Cloud, of the JCFD board, agreed, adding, "The sale is going to be the trick."
"It needs to make sense," said Chris DuPont, also of the JCFD board. "Once we have the structure in place, how do we fund it? What will it take to provide the best service, both lifesaving and property-saving, for our community? My personal opinion is combining services will make us more efficient."
Board Chairman Rob Galyen said that he would anticipate "efficiencies of scale" from a merger. "Voters are going to decide," he said.
"It seems that there's support from both boards," said Tim Gassner, JCFD attorney. "I think $2.70 is appropriate; you don't want to have to come back again and again."
By comparison, the Sisters-Camp Sherman Rural Fire Protection District pays $2.73 per $1,000 (in addition to a bond levy), and the Crooked River Ranch Rural Fire Protection District pays $1.839, plus a local option levy of $0.69, for a total of $2.529 (plus a bond levy).
In order to form a combined district, Rasmussen said that they would need to dissolve the two districts and form a new one in a single election. The County Commission would be in charge of drawing the new district's boundaries, which could be enlarged, potentially lowering the tax rate.
"I've been an advocate for this for a long time," said Rick Allen, a volunteer fireman and former mayor, city councilor and county commissioner. "Both agencies have great dedicated staff; however, often, because of the self-inflicted decisions or inefficiencies you have with two separate agencies responding, the level of service is not what it should be."
During emergencies, Allen has seen slow or delayed responses, and duplication of equipment, or the wrong equipment responding. "It is not uncommon at most structure fires that the first arriving emergency apparatus is an ambulance, not a fire truck," he said.
"Culver, in general, is an island. They'd like to merge in," said Allen. "The Culver area in particular is seeing delayed or no response when requested on medical calls, due to staffing shortages at the fire department."
"The ambulance will respond, but has a long drive time to reach the scene," he continued. "Often, the fire department fails to respond at all. That puts the patient's life at increased risk by a lack of crew size to adequately manage the patient needs (heart, stroke, trauma etc.)."
"Several times a month, the ambulance has more calls than they can respond to, requiring mutual aid from others agencies, which can cause a delayed response," he said. "Yet two ambulances are sitting parked, while Jefferson County fire has three to eight full-time staff or interns made up of EMTs and paramedics doing routine station chores, while taxpayers are waiting for a response to their emergency."
After the Madras area, Lepin said that Culver has the second highest call volume for EMS. "The fact is, every week, calls are not responded to in the Culver area by fire. There are some shortages here," he said. "We're short-staffed."
"I don't believe we can stay separate," said Allen. "Public, stand-alone ambulances will not survive. There's not a public ambulance like you in the state that's not combined with something or getting some sort of subsidy."
Huff was pleased with the support for merging, but said he wants to ensure that there is "buy-in" from the board. "We don't want to spin our wheels. This is encouraging today; it puts us on the same page," he said, adding that he hopes to have a proposal to put before voters in the next year or two. "We have one shot at this to get it right."
"Thanks for having the courage to put this together and put numbers on the board," said Rasmussen, suggesting that they wait for the updated Matrix report before taking any action.
"We're on the right track," said Allen. "In the end, I think it's sellable, and I think the public wants it."