F’ville Council may be split on county’s proposal to take over city fire department
The members of the Fayetteville City Council joined with four of the five Fayette County commissioners on April 9 for a public presentation of the proposed consolidation of the Fayetteville Fire Department with Fayette County’s Fire and Emergency Services.
As occurred two years ago when the same topic surfaced, the commission chambers were full of people largely opposed to the measure. While a wealth of information was presented and numerous city fire staff and others addressed elected officials, some aspects of the proposal were not addressed.
The City Council will continue the discussion and will likely vote at a called meeting scheduled for April 23 at 5 p.m. at City Hall.
Mayor Greg Clifton in a letter to the editor in today’s paper (Page A7) says he leans toward the consolidation.
At right, above, Fayetteville residents gathered April 9 to hear arguments for and against having the Fayette Fire and Emergency Services take over the city fire department.Photo/Ben Nelms.
The meeting began with a presentation by County Administrator Steve Rapson reviewing the consolidation proposal made at the recent commission retreat. Rapson reviewed recent data from both departments such as calls for service, types of response incidents, a financial analysis and a detailed look at staff levels, command structure and salary and benefits packages which maintained that city firefighters would benefit from becoming county employees. Fayetteville’s fire department has nearly four dozen full-time and part-time employees.
A portion of the presentation, based on figures provided by the city, dealt with finances showing the department’s salaries and benefits with a cost of $2.4 million and with property taxes generating approximately $2.1 million, resulting in a shortfall of approximately $350,000.
It was stated on several occasions that, if consolidated, the city could offset citizens’ requirement to pay the county’s 3.07 mill fire district by eliminating most of the city’s 3.11 mill property tax rate.
In a statement during the meeting Rapson and others said the city initiated the idea of consolidation while Clifton during the meeting said it was the county that had initiated the discussion. Neither council members nor commissioners made any significant attempt to address the differing accounts.
It has been noted on a number of occasions that the financial benefit to the city is not the only variable in the consolidation question. Though not of primary focus at the April 9 meeting, it has been stated by commissioners and county staff that the properties which fund the county fire district tax continue to shrink over the years due to annexation.
At some point, the county will have to acquire additional territory, as in the case of Fayetteville, or raise the fire district millage rate. From the county’s perspective, the move to consolidate the two fire services is one that will benefit both departments and residents of the city and county.
Many of the public speakers at the meeting were Fayetteville firefighters or residents. Most did not favor consolidation. And, as would be expected, there was a great deal of emotion expressed. The comments of many were reminiscent of the meetings two years ago when consolidation was proposed and voted down by the council.
Some fire department staff said the data they had been shown indicated that they would be losing in salary or benefits if consolidation occurs. Commission Chairman Steve Brown after the meeting said he and Rapson had met with one of the firefighters, showing him that he would have an increase of several thousand dollars under consolidation.
One of the speakers, while essentially advocating to keep the departments separate, used the bulk of his time in offering what amounted to a primer in ISO ratings, which equate to insurance rates paid by homeowners and businesses. Brooks resident and Atlanta Fire Rescue Assistant Fire Chief Steven Woodward in other comments said that, in terms of staffing and other variables, the county’s fire protection strategy is not as encompassing, while the city’s fire protection strategy works in Fayetteville.
“Why take on Fayetteville’s fire protection when you haven’t fixed mine?” Woodward asked county commissioners. Woodward then had a comment for city council members. “Diluting a diluted system will only dilute it more. In 32 years I’ve been associated with nine fire departments. Fayetteville’s is the most fiscally-minded department I’ve ever been associated with. And that can only come from leadership.”
Among the others making comments was former Fayetteville Councilman Larry Dell.
Dell, who served on the council for 25 years and did not run for re-election last year, at one point referenced the idea stated several times during the meeting that without consolidation the city’s fund balance would decrease to near zero by 2018.
Below, Former Fayetteville Councilman Larry Dell speaks out against consolidation. Photo/Ben Nelms.
“We didn’t go to zero in 25 years. We were prudent through those years,” Dell said. “With (projects such as Pinewood) there is a lot of building going on this year and last year.”
Dell in addressing the city council asked how they could believe the statements about a zero fund balance.
The only one to respond was Clifton, saying the statements concerning a depleted fund balance was based on projections by the city’s financial staff.
“The financial staff wouldn’t let that happen. You have no faith in the city of Fayetteville. The status quo is not going to stay like it is,” Dell said, adding that his taxes pay for emergency medical service calls and 911.
Former long-time Councilman Al Hovey-King also weighed in, referencing the ISO report offered minutes earlier by Woodward and saying the city developed a plan when the 1,200 acres that includes Pinewood was annexed.
“There hasn’t been enough citizen input. You’re doing a disservice to the citizens of Fayetteville,” Hovey-King said.
Former Mayor Ken Steele also addressed the council and commission.
“Fayette County and Fayetteville have outstanding fire departments,” Steele said. “I think you’re shortchanging the citizens. Once (the fire department is) surrendered, it can never be reversed. For the life of me I can’t see why you would sacrifice one of the two most important city services. The new council with some serving only three months don’t know enough to be qualified to make the decision.”
Business owner Carl Schaapman also had his say on consolidation.
“You let the county take the lead,” Schaapman said to council members. “Two years after a change in politics in the city we’re going to a countywide system without input from the citizens. I think you’re being naive about this.”
Councilman Paul Oddo later in the meeting spoke about the savings associated with consolidation.
“We have the opportunity to save some money. Station 93 can be constructed and we will save some money for the city and keep fire protection,” Oddo said.
Councilman Ed Johnson offered his comments, saying, “I’m here to gather as much information as possible on behalf of the citizens of Fayetteville. This is a proposal. I thought we put this to rest last year. There hadn’t been a data-driven analysis. And (Assistant Chief) Woodward gave us a good counter-argument.”
Fayetteville City Manager Joe Morton after the meeting was asked to clarify some of the financial issues not made clear in the joint meeting. The clarification was requested after it was noted on several occasions, by Rapson and others, that Fayetteville’s fund balance would be nearly depleted by 2018. The City Council sat essentially silent when those comments were made.
While perhaps unintended, some in the audience got the impression that the city would be in dire financial straits without consolidation. Yet the five-year forecast figures presented by city staff at the March council retreat as the “worst case scenario” showed a different perspective.
“The city is in sound financial condition as you are aware. We presented the five-year forecast at the retreat as we normally do,” Morton said. “This is simply a planning document with certain assumptions built into the plan that may or may not occur during the five-year plan. The revenue estimates were very conservative and really didn’t include much in the way of new revenues from the West Fayetteville and Pinewood area. Included in the plan was adding four new police officers and three new firefighters along with the new fire station 93 and necessary apparatus and equipment. In doing this we reduced our unassigned fund balance from $2.4 million to $26,000 over the five-year period. This included paying cash for the new station and apparatus, which we probably would not do (because it would) totally deplete our unassigned fund balance. We would probably need to do some type of loan on the fire station and apparatus to minimize the impact on our unassigned fund balance. This five-year forecast was essentially a ‘worst case’ scenario and staff made this very point multiple times at the retreat.”
Morton said consolidation would save the city approximately $350,000 per year.
He also emphasized that the budget numbers provided by city staff reflected unassigned funds. The city for years has maintained a three-month operating reserve in the general fund.
Asked what taxpayers in Fayetteville might expect if consolidation occurs, Morton said, “Although the City Council has not discussed this specifically with staff, the assumption is that the city would roll back the general fund millage which is 3.115 mills by the 3.07 county fire tax millage, for a net millage of .045 mills for the city and resulting in no additional tax impact to Fayetteville taxpayers under a consolidated service. The city also has a .811 mill capital projects fund millage which would not be impacted by consolidation.”
A breakdown of general fund revenues shows approximately 25 percent of those funds coming from property taxes, approximately 25 percent in sales taxes and the balance from other sources such as occupational taxes, franchise fees and licenses and permits.
Both Brown and Clifton after the meeting were asked to provide what they see as the bottom line on the consolidation issue.
“The key point to address in this matter is what is the alternative to not doing this proposal?” Brown said. “The county will have to contract services to build more efficiency as the city expands, so the picture related to automatic aid in that scenario means Fayetteville is going to have to stand-up a full-fledged fire department to handle structure fires. That probably means close to doubling their current manpower and significant cost increases in the midst of an already bad city budget track. Fayetteville would have to do a significant tax increase to get out of the skeleton budget mode. Under the current proposal, the city is relieved of millions of dollars in future operations and maintenance costs for fire and they gain $359,000 annually in additional revenue to apply to budget problems while the Fayetteville firefighters keep their jobs, serving in the same stations, with increased pay. Every elected official has gone into this analysis and discussion with the best intentions for both jurisdictions. From the county side, we know when Fayetteville succeeds that our county succeeds.”
Clifton said that while the number of fire calls for both departments is low, there is a logical expectation that the percentage of medical-related calls will only increase as the city and county population continues to age in place.
“The city fire personnel are only certified in Basic Life Support (BLS). All the county fire personnel are trained in Advanced Life Support (ALS). This means they can administer IVs and send telemetry to the hospital, which could mean the difference between life and death, particularly for heart attack and stroke victims. To my mind that is a significant improvement in level of service,” Clifton said.
“Fayetteville currently spends more than the total of our general fund property tax millage rate revenues to staff and equip our two-station fire department. The city must therefore supplement maintenance and operation expenses from other revenue sources. It is reasonable to assume that equipping and staffing a third fire station will increase that portion of the city budget by half again over present levels,” Clifton said.
Asked for his bottom line, Clifton said, “True, the city would lose control of future fire services-related tax increases, but without consolidation it is likely that the city would be forced to significantly raise taxes to support our third fire station. Are Fayetteville property owners willing to pay that increased tax burden? Economies of scale will allow the county to maintain the same level of services as the city currently provides, perhaps even higher at reduced cost, and thus without increasing taxes.”
There will be another meeting to discuss consolidation. It will be held by the City Council on April 23 at 5 p.m. at City Hall. Clifton on Monday said he expected the council to vote on consolidation at the conclusion of the meeting.
Below, elected officials from Fayetteville and Fayette County on April 9 held a joint meeting on the potential consolidation of the city and county fire departments. Pictured from left are Mayor Greg Clifton, Commissioner Chuck Oddo, Councilman Ed Johnson, Councilman Jim Williams, Commissioner Steve Brown, Councilman Paul Oddo, Commissioner David Barlow, Councilman Scott Stacy and Councilman Mickey Edwards. Photo/Ben Nelms.