July 29, 2014

Public safety, fire consolidation would be county’s second

Danedri Thompson
dthompson@gardnernews.com

The Johnson County Board of Commissioners authorized a $4.4 million bond issue on Sept. 23 that will allow Fire District No. 1 to finance the purchase of Gardner’s fire equipment including the public safety station on 183rd Street.

Fire District No. 1 and Gardner fire operations have been negotiating a possible merger between the two for more than a year, but according to Stewart Fairburn, Gardner City Administrator, a contract for services is more likely than a full consolidation.

“The issue with consolidation is that (Fire District No. 1)’s mill levy is for fire services is higher than ours,” Fairburn said. “If we went straight to consolidation, our citizens would end up paying a higher mill.”

Fairburn said as Gardner property values increase or the city’s mill is pushed higher, the city will be in a position to consolidate with Fire District No. 1.

For now, Gardner’s council has discussed entering into a contract with Fire District No. 1 to provide fire services. The county’s bond issue will allow the fire district to takeover the city’s lease for an aerial truck and create an escrow account to eventually takeover payments on the city’s fire station on 183rd Street.

Fairburn said the main goal of discussions between the fire district and the city is to create a separate police and fire force. Currently, Gardner Public Safety employees do double duty offering fire protection and police services.

“Instead of having two departments providing services – both departments will be able to concentrate on their main goal – one is police and one is fire,” he said.

The possible consolidation of fire protection services is the second in Johnson County. De Soto’s fire department consolidated with Johnson County Fire District No. 3 creating the Northwest Consolidated Fire District on Jan. 1, 2010.

Terry Zahner, Northwest Consolidated Fire District Fire Chief, said the new entity hasn’t saved any money yet.

“It’s still new,” Zahner said. There were a lot of legal fees, and I think in another year or so we’ll see real savings.”

Due to the consolidation, Zahner said, response times in De Soto have improved and the transition has been painless.

In Gardner, Public Safety and Fire District No. 1 respond to fires in Gardner. Similarly, De Soto Fire Department and Fire District No. 3 both responded to fires in De Soto.

“There was a lot of duplication of services,” Zahner said. “We responded to the same area. As that goes away, we’ll see savings in fuel, wear and tear on equipment. It will all go down as time goes on.”

Discussions for consolidation in De Soto started as early as 1984, Zahner recalled. Talks were sidelined then and eventually rekindled in the late 1990s. They were again waylaid.

“Then it started again three years ago – probably in 2006,” Zahner said. “The goal was to put the two departments together, to have them under one management, and have better control of city services and our services and a better tax base to broaden the burden.”

Although formal talks to consolidate Gardner’s fire services with county services have only been ongoing for more than a year, previous councils and city officials have occasionally flirted with the idea of consolidating the two fire entities.

Zahner said now that consolidation has occurred in De Soto, he can’t think of any negatives.

“If people look at this using the big picture, it doesn’t matter what color the fire truck is or what the name on the side of the truck is,” Zahner said. “What matters is when someone calls 9-1-1, someone shows up.”

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