Gardner City Council members and Johnson County Fire District No. 1 board members hammered out details of an agreement that would consolidate fire services of the two entities and lease the services to city residents.
During a Monday evening work session, Gardner council learned that a proposed termination clause in the contract that would allow the return of city assets if the fire services agreement fell short of expectations would not be possible. A decision to move forward with the agreement likely means the city will permanently end its fire services and will one day consolidate fully with the fire district.
That was always the plan when consolidation discussions started. But Gardner citizens currently pay less in taxes for fire services than fire district residents.
Until the tax rates are similar, the entities devised a proposal in which Gardner would essentially lease fire services.
City administrator Stewart Fairburn compared signing the contract for services to diving off a cliff, because there’s likely no turning back.
“You sort of look at your cliff, and make your choice,” Fairburn said.
Under the proposed contract, the fire district would issue bonds to make debt payments for Gardner’s fire station on 183rd Street and an aerial truck owned by the city. The original contract would allow the city to let bonds to repurchase the aerial truck and the fire house if the consolidation didn’t go as planned, but Fairburn informed the council he had learned that wouldn’t be allowed by bond counsel.
Once the debt is serviced, the fire district will fully and legally own the aerial truck and the fire station. Gardner residents have been servicing the debt on both for a number of years.
“It’s odd that we’ll give them their equipment,” Fairburn said. “But it’s still serving the people who paid for it.”
Other city equipment would also be given to the fire district.
The contract also requires that eight city public safety employees, including the fire chief, Rob Kirk, be hired by the fire district.
The proposed contract stipulates that average call out time for the fire district will not exceed five minutes, and that the aerial truck remain stationed in Gardner unless Gardner council approves a move.
Fairburn said the city would save approximately $50,000 each year for fire protection under the proposed three year contract. The proposal stipulates that the city would pay $1.04 million in 2011 for fire services; $1.08 million in 2012 and $1.1 million in 2013.
The contract would be renewable on a yearly basis for three years, and council members requested that it include maximum rates of increase. The fees for services would be paid in 12 equal installments over the course of each year.
Although the contract proposes a start date of Jan. 1, 2011, Gardner Public Safety Chief Ken Francis said he’d like the changes to occur as quickly as possible.
“The quicker we can get started on that transition, the better it will be,” Francis said. He said the employees volunteering to leave Gardner Public Safety for the fire district are ready to go.
“And employees are ready for them to go,” Francis said.
The fire district plans to let bonds in order to start paying debt on the fire station and the city’s aerial truck in November.
Council members briefly debated setting a definitive date at the end of the contract for full consolidation, but opted not to specify that in the contract.