Fire, ambulance districts still talking consolidation
“We’re not here proposing marriage,” said Bruce Meilke, a member of the fire protection district’s board of directors. “Let’s dance a couple of dances.”
At issue is the potential of saving as much as $10 million over the next several years, say proponents. But if it is like similar consolidations, it may take years to achieve. Both boards agreed to explore the potential and will be appointing committee members that will report jointly to each board. The next meeting will be held Feb. 20.
There is some urgency, said John Power, a member of the ambulance district’s board, who recommended joint strategic planning begin sooner than later because of the cost of new facilities and remodels, some scheduled for this spring. The ambulance district will be remodeling its Edwards station in April, for example, at a cost of $1.4 million.
The possibility of combining facilities is where most of the cost savings could be realized.
“Unless this is woven into the matrix, nothing is going to get done,” he said. “I really do believe there are cost efficiencies out there that can be realized. It’s an issue of management will as to whether or not we want this to work.”
Close in Edwards
Power and others board members pointed out that in Edwards the ambulance facility and fire station are just 50 feet apart.
“At some point in time, the fire station will have to remodel, too,” Power said. “We can reduce costs if we can do it together. Firefighters and ambulance personnel often jointly respond to emergencies.
The ambulance board’s chairwoman, Donna Barnes, said the idea was interesting, but was cautious about the possibilities.
“A merger is a huge, drastic change, and it would take years to do that,” she said. “We could certainly do a building together. We talked to them (the fire district) on expanding our Edwards building. We don’t want to save money and decrease the quality of service. That’s not right.”
Fire Chief Charlie Moore reminded his colleagues it took 15 years for the handful of metropolitan fire districts to coalesce in 2001 into the Eagle River Fire Protection District, now with a $4 million budget, eight fire stations, 45 full-time employees and 85 part-time employees.
“The idea of consolidation was for one board to look at the whole region and make the best decisions for everybody and take away the argument about who should pay for what,” he said. “Fear of change was the hardest thing to overcome.”
Moore said he estimates $10 million in capital expenditure savings if the two organizations are able to be jointly housed, as commonly happens in other towns.
“It’s more efficient. We could save on administration charges with one lawyer, auditor and payroll clerk. The list goes on and on,” he said.
Patient care paramount
Not everyone was convinced, however, that consolidated districts would be better.
“Not once did I hear a mention about patient care. There was a lot of talk about saving money,” said Lyn Morgan, general manager of the Eagle County Ambulance District, which operates two stations on a $3.4 million budget, with 25 full-time employees and 20 part-time employees.
“We’re willing to look at any of the opportunities, but not at the expense of patient care.”
Morgan said he had received letters from the towns of Vail and Avon and some metropolitan districts urging the proposal be evaluated. The two districts already do share some of the facilities, after all, he said.
Two years ago, Morgan added, he approached the fire district to inform them about his planned expansion in Edwards. At that time, he said, the fire district was not ready to plan an expansion of its facilities there.
But ambulance board member Power said he believes there needs to be more focus on the issue because of the expense.
“This is a very sensitive issue for the ambulance district,” he said. “My beef is these districts are all coming to get a bite out of the taxpayer’s hide. It will be death by 100 paper cuts.”
If the two districts are able to share facilities, it will be far more cost-efficient, Power said.
“It’s like the cost of developing a single-family home vs. developing a duplex. A duplex is much more cost-efficient,” he said.
Both the ambulance and the fire districts will be expanding and jointly developing facilities could save the ever-increasing cost of land.
“All the easy land has been developed already,” said fire board member Bob Warner, who acknowledged the difficulty inherent in consolidations.
Intellectually, it makes sense,” Warner said. “Politically it may never happen.”
The Vail Fire Department has studied merging with the Eagle River Fire Protection District, too. A consultant reported, however, it would cost more to merge than it would to operate a separate department.
Bob McIlveen, chairman of the fire board, is a proponent of some consolidation. He served on the Upper Eagle Regional Water Authority when it was cobbled together in 1984 from nearly a dozen metropolitan districts.
“I think it has merit,” he said. “If we’re going to be doing anything together, we should find that out before we start building facilities. If we wait too long, we will bypass the savings. We’re getting closer and closer to figuring out what we want to do. We should be protecting the taxpayer. I happen to be one.”
Cliff Thompson can be reached at 949-0555 ext 450 or firstname.lastname@example.org