The Littleton City Council laid its cards on the table regarding the future of its fire department at a Dec. 5 study session, telling city staff that some kind of merger of Littleton Fire Rescue with South Metro Fire Rescue is likely the only viable option.
The direction from council followed the November announcements that Littleton Fire Protection District and Highlands Ranch Metro District, the city's two enormous fire protection partner districts, would cut ties with the city and merge with South Metro, a large consolidated regional district, beginning in 2019.
The announcement leaves Littleton with the choice of maintaining a significantly smaller stand-alone fire service or contracting with another district for fire protection. The fire partners have urged Littleton to begin negotiating with South Metro to join in the merger.
Time is of the essence, said City Manager Mark Relph.
“I'm concerned about the timeline established by our fire partners,” Relph said. “The clock is ticking. We have to have an operational solution by Jan. 1, 2019. We need time to implement whatever we decide, and we have a budget process that starts in summertime. We need to make some real decisions by July to allow for transition time.”
City officials weighed their feasible options: contract with West Metro Fire Protection District, a regional district on the west side of the metro area; contract with Denver Fire Department, which already contracts with Englewood for coverage; maintain a stand-alone city firefighting force; or accept the partners' invitation to join South Metro.
Partnering with West Metro would be problematic because the district will no longer share a border with Littleton after the partners depart, said Mayor Debbie Brinkman, adding that West Metro also charges a higher rate for service than South Metro is offering — West Metro's current mill levy is 12.382, compared to South Metro's offer of 9.25. Littleton's current mill levy is 6.662, which also provides for other services.
Partnering with Denver would be contingent on Denver continuing to contract with Englewood for service in order to maintain its proximity, Brinkman said, as well as creating the necessity to contract for ambulance service, which Denver does not provide. Currently, Littleton Fire Rescue has paramedics on every truck and maintains its own ambulance service.
Maintaining a stand-alone district would result in higher costs and a reduction in service capabilities, said Littleton Fire Rescue Chief Chris Armstrong.
Simply paying the salary of current employees could run north of $11 million, Amstrong said, citing evaluations by City Finance Director Tiffany Hooten. South Metro's annual rate would come in around $8 million, Armstrong said. The city proper currently spends about $6.7 million on its fire department annually, according to online budget documents.
More info desired
Councilmember Carol Fey said she wanted to see more information than had been presented.
“Seems to me it's premature to drop options before we know more,” Fey said. “I'll put a disclaimer: It could be that I'm far behind what everyone else knows. It could be that other newly elected people were somehow plugged into what was going on before our terms on council happened. I wasn't.”
Several councilmembers said they would like to see a singular document spelling out the city's criteria for fire service that could be used to evaluate the options.
“Even if the answer is almost guaranteed, I think it's important to have something official with the criteria listed,” said Councilmember Peggy Cole.
Armstrong said Littleton already has a unique relationship with South Metro that would aid the transition.
“The reason we lean so heavily on South Metro is because about 80 percent of our border (is) with them, which helps our ability to provide an effective response force to a jurisdiction,” Armstrong said. “It's easy to flood a jurisdiction with resources to get multiple engines or units on a scene.”
Armstrong added that Littleton firefighters have also trained alongside South Metro for years, that the agencies have an established auto-aid agreement, provide a similar EMS-based system, and use the same computer-aided dispatch systems.
“We don't have that level of interoperability with any other systems,” Armstrong said.
Armstrong said that the realities of Littleton fire calls mean that going to a stand-alone department could prove limiting.
Armstrong said between 70 percent and 80 percent of the fire department's roughly 5,000 annual calls are for emergency medical response, and that for 37 percent of the calls placed in the city, the first responding unit is from outside city limits — units that will not be available for first response after the partners leave.
Options in question
Fey said the city wasn't looking hard enough at its options.
“We're missing a big opportunity to shift our perspective if we don't look at the possibility to shift in the direction of separating fire and EMS,” Fey said. “We don't know until we look.”
Armstrong responded that of the three stand-alone scenarios presented by Hooten at the Nov. 28 study session, two did in fact incorporate the idea of contracting out for EMS service, and that both were still more expensive than contracting with South Metro.
Armstrong added that the city has previously tried contracting with private ambulance companies, but suffered overbilling and delayed response times. He also said that separating fire and EMS would lower the department's insurance rating, which could translate into higher costs for homeowners.
“If you move those firefighters out of the system, it would require you to hire more firefighters to maintain your public protection classification,” Armstrong said.
South Metro can provide economies of scale that would be difficult to achieve as a stand-alone department, Armstrong said.
“We spend a lot of money putting fire apparatus in place for a reason. How would you evacuate a hospital with two trucks out of two stations?” Armstrong said. “When the fire calls come in, they're significant. We have to prepare for the worst-case scenario.”
Contracting with South Metro would not immediately require full unification, the city manager said. Although South Metro will conduct an election in both Littleton Fire Protection District and Highlands Ranch Metro District in May to seek full inclusion, Littleton could simply contract for service for the time being, Relph said.
“It would be an inter-governmental agreement,” he said. “It would allow us to specify our desired level of service and mandate penalties for falling short of the mark.”
Where there's smoke
Council held an informal and non-binding vote to agree to effectively drop West Metro and Denver as viable options, and to focus on establishing terms with which to approach South Metro for a service contract. Fey, Cole, and Karina Elrod — who participated by phone — voted to keep West Metro and Denver as options.
The other four councilmembers — Brinkman, Kyle Schlachter, Patrick Driscoll and Jerry Valdes — were assertive that commencing negotiations with South Metro was the best course of action.
“We need to put our effort, energy and work into a really strong negotiation,” Brinkman said. “We're in a position where we can unify again with our partners, and we can go in stronger than separate. Stand-alone is always there if this trajectory starts to fall apart.”
Schlachter said the city might not be dealing with the question had the partnerships been handled differently.
“We're in this situation partly because of a lack of listening from previous councils,” Schlachter said. “In this situation, everything I'm hearing from financial, first responders, legal, staff, citizens, is that (South Metro) is pretty much our only option. We need to start listening.”
Driscoll said he understands the need to present the information clearly to constituents, but felt he sees the situation clearly.
“I listened to what our partners had to say, and I heard them loud and clear,” Driscoll said. “I'm in favor of looking at South Metro as our only option.”
Valdes said he's heard enough to know which direction to go.
“We're elected officials to make decisions,” Valdes said. “We've got to make a budget. We don't have time to be messing around. We're going to end up here anyway.”
Elrod, who missed the city council meeting that preceded the study session, and did not attend a joint meeting of the city and fire partners on Nov. 30, reiterated that time was of the essence.
“It behooves us (to work with South Metro) as it seems to be our most viable option,” Elrod said. “Let's move to the discovery phase really quickly. The sooner we get through the diligence phase, the quicker we'll reinforce the confidence we feel in this direction.”
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