Rural fire districts could team up

Monday, February 5, 2007

Three rural fire protection districts in Scott County are considering consolidating into one in a move proponents say would provide the districts with more political and purchasing power.

Officials with the county's three northernmost rural fire districts -- the Oran Fire Protection District, the Scott County Rural Fire Protection District and the New Hamburg-Benton-Commerce (NBC) Fire Protection District -- have begun discussion the idea in public meetings in the past few weeks.

A decision would still be months or years away, said Scott County developer Joel Evans, a member of the Scott County Rural board of directors, but officials with the district want to alert the public to the proposal so they can gather input.

Oran district fire chief James Watkins is one of the chief proponents of the proposal. He said there are several advantages to consolidation, including improved purchasing power and the ability to lower the ISO ratings -- which are used to set fire insurance rates for property owners -- throughout the three districts.

Some of the districts have resources that others do not, Watkins said. Right now those districts must assist each other, which involves travel time from one district to the next. Under consolidation, equipment could be more evenly distributed, decreasing response time, Watkins said.

NBC fire chief Greg Schwartzkopf said each district already calls on the others for assistance with major responses like structure fires. Consolidation would just make the process easier.

"We work so much together the way it is now, and all of us are so short-handed and short-staffed -- we're basically running as one big district now," said Schwartzkopf.

Another possible advantage Watkins points to is increased power to obtain federal homeland security grant funding following the new system of awarding grants regionally instead of directly to local jurisdictions.

A consolidated district would carry more political clout, Watkins said. "We're missing out on a lot of that," he said of the federal dollars. "If we consolidated, we would no longer be a 25-member department, we would now be a 70-member department,"

Schwartzkopf said the leadership of the districts are behind the proposal, and firefighters seem to think it's a good idea, too. However, there could be negative aspects that must be weighed against the benefits, he said.

One potential problem could be representation on a consolidated district's board of directors, said Evans. Those board members would be elected, and Evans said he thinks residents in the districts would want someone from their geographic area to represent them, instead of at-large members. State statutes don't currently provide for that scenario, he said. Another challenge could be finding a compromise between the tax rates of different districts, Evans said.

Proponents of consolidation have several other counties to use as models, including Boone County in central Missouri, which has consolidated its entire county into one district. Schwartzkopf said leaders of the three districts are in the earliest phases of the discussion, researching how consolidation worked in other places and the legal aspects of creating one large district from three smaller ones.

335-6611, extension 182

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