Consolidating fire services back on the slow track
That’s the latest twist in the ongoing saga of whether the town’s fire department ever will join forces with a much larger, downvalley fire department, the Eagle River Fire Protection District, based in Avon, which has jurisdiction over most of eastern Eagle County.
Now, in an effort to build a solid foundation on which to make a decision, fire officials with the town and the district have permission “to begin discussions concerning the viability of working cooperatively to determine if consolidating into a single fire district is mutually beneficial to both entities and worthy of a future public vote.”
“I think a lot of us thought we were moving too fast prior to the election (earlier this month),” says Vail’s mayor, Rod Slifer. “It’s pretty complicated, and a lot of things need to be resolved.”
Under the agreement – drafted in October by Vail’s new town manager, Stan Zemler, and approved by the Town Council last week – an earlier effort that informally explored the possibilities of consolidating Vail’s Fire and Emergency Services with the Eagle River Fire Protection District by Jan. 1 basically moves toward a joint, formal “pilot project” seeking “to determine the economic viability, level of service provided … and other pertinent issues.”
“When I came here, this process was moving too quickly. But I’ve had a lot of questions, and the answers weren’t there,” says Zemler, who assumed his role as Vail’s chief administrator last month. “This all needs to be done in a thoughtful, prudent manner.”
In July, the Town Council planned to put a property-tax increase on the November ballot. The money would have been used to build a new fire station in West Vail. As an alternative, the council also considered asking voters to send a portion of property taxes to the Eagle River Fire District to complete the merger. Ultimately, however, no questions related to the fire department made the ballot, although the merger still was in the works.
Vail Fire Chief John Gulick says this latest delay is a tough pill to swallow for his department, as the agreement is the latest in more than half a dozen, similar studies takes in the past few years. In the long run, however, it may may lead to a new fire station for West Vail sooner than later.
“People have been talking about this for years: How can we pool our resources and better serve the public,” says Gulick. “There nothing to say we can’t blend them all together and make a great department.”
“Into the unknown’
The Eagle River Fire Protection District, based in Avon with a budget of $4.1 million, comprises: 42 full-time firefighters and another 40 or so part-timers and trainees; 20 vehicles, including eight structural engines, two wildland engines, a ladder truck, a tanker truck and six staff vehicles; and nine fire stations, including facilities in Red Cliff and Cordillera.
The Vail fire department, with a budget of $1.4 million, comprises: 17 full-time firefighters; three fire engines; two ladder trucks; and two utility vehicles.
While the two fire departments are very similar in form and function, Gulick says, there are differences in salaries, procedures, training and funding mechanisms that need to dovetail – and there’s a litany of concerns that need to be addressed thoroughly.
“Everybody does things a little differently. Right now, it’s looking into the unknown,” says Gulick. “There’s just so many details to be ironed out, so Stan put the brakes on. What this new agreement says is we’re willing to talk about how to better serve the community.
“It’s an interesting process, and there’s going to be a lot of work for all of us to see how we can save taxpayer money without lowering the level of service,” says Chief Gulick.
Charlie Moore, chief of the Eagle River Fire Protection District, agrees. He says he’s looking forward to entering into a serious discussion about consolidating services with Vail.
“Nobody’s in a big hurry here,” says Moore. “We had informal discussions for six months or so. This agreement basically formalizes it and tells the public what’s going on.
Moore, who worked hard to bring fire protection services from Dowd Junction to Dotsero together under one umbrella two years ago, says bringing Vail into the mix should not be difficult.
“Just imagine how difficult it was to get 12 entities consolidated,” says Moore. “It really does streamline things, especially in terms of management, but it’s working very well.”
Vail Mayor Slifer, meanwhile, says there’s no pressure to proceed with consolidation if it’s not the right thing to do.
“If either party feels it’s not going anywhere – no savings or benefits – we can stop it at any time,” Slifer says.
West Vail resident decries consolidation
A merger of fire protection services – which ultimately would have to be approved by Vail voters – could delay construction of a West Vail fire station, a facility promised for more than two decades.
Earlier this year, the Town Council ordered the drawing up of blueprints for the station, but many people believe the firehouse would be far cheaper to build if and when the town joins the Eagle River Fire Protection District.
One resident of West Vail, however – David Reichardt, who lives at the end of Basingdale Boulevard, about as as west as one can get within the town limits – says he’s totally against consolidation. A Vail resident since 1975, he says his main beef with consolidation is that the town would have to transfer a portion of its property taxes to the district.
Last week, Reichardt urged the Town Council to reject the latest agreement to discuss consolidation, saying public safety – mainly the construction of a West Vail fire station – should be a priority higher than looking at a financial savings through consolidation.
“All that money would be going downvalley,” says Reichardt, vowing to file a petition full of signatures of fellow West Vail residents if this latest “pilot project” concludes consolidation is the way to go. “Our Town Council has not been funding our fire department correctly in the first place.”
Interestingly, Reichardt recently had a fire at his house that did an estimated $20,000 in damage to his garage. By the time the Vail fire department arrived, he says, he’d already put it out, with the help of neighbors.
He says the town of Vail could face a serious lawsuit if the relatively long response time from Vail’s main fire station in Vail Village is found to be a contributing factor in a tragedy.
“If somebody dies from a fire, they really could be in trouble,” says Reichardt.
Vail’s town manager, meanwhile, says design work on a new fire station should proceed, as it needs to be built no matter which entity ultimately pays for it.
“The money already has been budgeted to do the design work,” says Zemler. “Proceeding with that would not take away from our conversations with Eagle River fire.”
Step by step
In introducing a draft agreement to study consolidating fire services to the council last week, Vail Town Manager Stan Zemler said the first task would be to provide a service level model with cost estimates and performance standards.
“We need to understand what our service levels are now and then understand the levels of services that would be provided under consolidation,” said Zemler.
From there, he added, the two departments would then discuss a process in which consolidated fire services would be provided to the town on a contractual basis for a period of six months to a year. That would help determine if an inclusion agreement is an appropriate next step.
Town Councilman Kent Logan asked for clarification about the various evaluation steps, saying the process must involve full input from the Vail firefighters. Councilwoman Diana Donovan, however, stressed the need to fully determine the extent to which consolidated services would benefit Vail, now and in the future.
Councilman Dick Cleveland, meanwhile, reminded the group that “from Day One,” the council’s top priority has been no reduction of service. Fellow Councilman Greg Moffet, meanwhile, said Vail should see an improved level of service – and a West Vail fire station – should the two agencies merge.
“And West Vail response times will be part of this study,” Zemler said.