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Consolidation would require a tax hike, but JCFD will soon need more revenue for operations anyway.

HOLLY M. GILL/MADRAS PIONEER - County Administrator Jeff Rasmussen, right, introduces the Matrix Consulting Group analyst, Robert Finn, at the fairgrounds meeting.
Fifteen months after the firm was hired, Matrix Consulting Group presented its findings June 5, on the feasibility of a merger between the Jefferson County Fire District and Jefferson County Emergency Medical Services.

In a room full of county, Madras and Culver officials, fire and ambulance personnel and board members, Matrix analyst Robert Finn presented the highlights of the 191-page final report.

The report found that consolidation would require a permanent tax rate of $2.18 per $1,000 assessed value for a new district with one fire engine and one ambulance staffed 24 hours a day, or $2.50 per $1,000 for one fire engine and two ambulances, using career and part-time staff.

"The fire district would need a $1 per $1,000 local tax option to improve long-term financial health if consolidation doesn't occur," Finn said.

The fire district has a permanent rate of $1.18 per $1,000, but has been using reserve funds to cover expenses for the past few years.

"Additional revenue is needed to maintain the status quo, or fund a consolidated agency," he said.

Currently, the district employs six full-time personnel that operate out of the headquarters, and two part-time administrative positions that amount to 1.15 full-time equivalents. The district covers about 200 square miles, with a population of about 14,000 residents.

For 2018, the district's revenue totaled $1.062 million, with expenditures totaling $972,110 including expenditures for capital items, such as equipment.

HOLLY M. GILL/MADRAS PIONEER - John Curnutt, at left, the chairman of the Jefferson County Emergency Medical Services Board of Directors, sits with his board to hear a report on the feasibility of a merger. The JCEMS board is not in favor of a merger, but has agreed to appoint members to a task force. JCEMS, which was formed as a special health care district, has 13.5 full-time equivalent employees that cover a district of about 1,200 square miles, with about 16,000 residents.

The JCEMS budget is about $1.23 million, but actual financial data was not available for the report. When the analysis was initiated, JCEMS had also been using reserve funds to cover expenses, but that changed part way into the study.

"During the course of this study, the JCEMS began to change the methodology in their billing practices," the report noted. "Essentially, the coding used in the past was not fully capturing the amounts due for services and supplies to the JCEMS. Beginning in the middle of 2018 the JCEMS began using different billing codes to secure the proper amounts due for services and supplies."

JCEMS Chief Mike Lepin said that the change in coding has made "a major night and day difference" in the district's bottom line, and he now sees the district being sustainable into the future.

The analysis also delved into the districts' operations, and found opportunities to improve call processing and dispatch time.

"Travel time is not controllable, but if they can fix the two controllable times on the front end, they can improve response time," said Finn.

Matrix found that it was difficult to determine the exact times for dispatch and arrival, since the dispatch system is not recording that data on every call.

"For example, in 2017 20.4% of the calls for the fire district did not have an en route time stamp and 27.6% of the calls did not have an arrival time stamp," the report noted. "For the ambulance service, in 2017, 11.6% of their calls did not have an en route time stamp and 16.4% of the calls did not have an arrival time stamp. The use of response time components is essential in determining station locations, the number of resources, and staffing of those resources."

The firm recommended that the county, fire district and EMS all work with the county's dispatch center, Frontier 911, to improve processing and dispatching of emergency calls, and that the fire district and county work with dispatch to ensure that each incident has only one number assigned to it, and other stations are notified at the same time.

Both districts should continue to work toward improving turnout times.

Regarding consolidation, Matrix recommended that the two districts move forward with seeking voter approval for a single emergency service district.

Currently, the fire district is fully staffed only from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., with volunteers responding after hours, along with career personnel.

JCEMS has personnel on duty 24 hours a day, and staffs two ambulances at all times.

The number one issue facing both districts is the diminished pool of volunteers, Finn pointed out, with many volunteers seeking a path to a career in fire or EMS.

By consolidating, he said, "You're no longer competing for a limited pool of volunteers."

Other benefits would be having staff on duty 24 hours a day, and having both fire and EMS cross-trained and responding simultaneously on critical calls.

Fire Chief Brian Huff explained that there are three options: dissolving and reforming as a single district with a $2.18 per $1,000 rate, which would provide for 24-hour staffing; reforming and seeking $2.50 per $1,000, which would allow the district to add staff; or at some point in the future, the fire district will need to ask for an additional $1 per $1,000 "to keep up with current staffing."

If the districts consolidate, Huff said that the fire hall has space to accommodate EMS personnel and equipment. "It would be tight at the fire station, but it doesn't mean we can't make it work," he added.

Jeff Rasmussen, county administrative officer, suggested that if the districts dissolve and create a new district, the district could include high value properties, such as hydroprojects and solar farms, which would lower the tax rate for district residents.

"It takes a vote to dissolve and create a new district," he said. "Both have to pass."

Finn said that a vote could take place as early as May or November 2020, but there are significant steps to take prior to the vote, including the creation of committees, which hold public meetings and present findings.

During the comment period after the presentation, Rob Galyen, president of the fire board, said that the board voted unanimously to work with EMS and move forward with a merger, but added, "It's not the board that's going to decide."

John Curnutt, president of the JCEMS board, was more skeptical. "The last time I polled my board, they expressed little interest in combining. We're kind of taking a wait and see attitude."

"I don't think we're opposed to going down the road to explore possibilities," he said. "If indeed efficiencies and quality of service promised to be better, we would go down that path."

Mae Huston, chairwoman of the Jefferson County Board of Commissioners, commented that the board's position is to encourage the "one agency model," with a committee from both agencies.

"The county is willing to commit some funding," she said. "The board believes it should begin immediately."

With both districts having financial challenges into the future, Madras City Administrator Gus Burril asked, "How do we grow with the community?"

Burril also questioned how often JCEMS is requesting backup from Warm Springs. "I've heard reports that it's pretty often," he said. "I'd like to see more consistency in the future."

When each of the parties was asked about moving forward, Paul Sumner, counsel for JCEMS, said that the JCEMS board needed to meet and come back with an opinion. Sumner said that meeting would take place Monday, June 10.

On Tuesday, Mike Lepin said that although the board is not in favor of a merger, "They have a desire to look out for our best interests. The board wants to participate in the task force, and has delegated two task force members and an alternate."

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