Familiar faces push back against fire merger

Veterans of previous political battles take issue with proposal

Posted 4/6/18

Familiar faces in Littleton politics came out swinging against the city's effort to see Littleton Fire Rescue absorbed by South Metro Fire Rescue at the April 3 city council meeting, taking umbrage …

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Familiar faces push back against fire merger

Veterans of previous political battles take issue with proposal

Posted

Familiar faces in Littleton politics came out swinging against the city's effort to see Littleton Fire Rescue absorbed by South Metro Fire Rescue at the April 3 city council meeting, taking umbrage at the tenets of a draft contract between the agencies and at how the effort has been conducted thus far.

A bevy of regulars at city council meetings laid out their concerns with the plan, a version of which was up for first reading at the meeting. A public hearing on the measure, a “pre-inclusion agreement,” will be held at the April 17 city council meeting.

If approved, the agreement would be a step toward Littleton voters seeing a ballot measure this November that, if passed, would effectively dissolve Littleton Fire Rescue and allow South Metro Fire Rescue to expand its boundaries to cover Littleton — a measure called the “inclusion plan.” South Metro charges a rate of 9.25 mills for fire coverage, which translates to a roughly $120 a year property tax increase on a home valued at $370,000.

If the measure fails at the ballot, Littleton would begin contracting with South Metro for fire coverage starting in January 2019 anyway, with Littleton footing the bill from its coffers. Subsequent votes would be held in attempts to gain voter blessing of the inclusion plan.

History lesson

The merger effort kicked off last November, after Highlands Ranch Metro District and Littleton Fire Protection District — areas surrounding the city that contract with the city for fire service — announced they were terminating their contracts with Littleton effective at the beginning of 2019. The announcement left Littleton scrambling for solutions to the departure of two sizable districts that provided economies of scale to the city's firefighting force.

Littleton City Council decided to pursue inclusion with South Metro after examining alternatives such as inclusion with West Metro Fire Rescue, contracting with Denver Fire, and keeping Littleton Fire Rescue as a standalone district. The other options fell away after a rundown of the numbers: West Metro charged a higher mill levy rate for coverage and did not share a largely contiguous border with the city; Denver Fire operates at a lower level of service and would not offer inclusion; and a standalone district would necessitate a mill levy increase while decreasing level of service.

Fey reaches out

Councilmember Carol Fey — who has consistently expressed or voted in opposition to the merger plan as proposed since being seated on council — sent out an email from her personal email address the morning of the April 3 meeting, imploring recipients to attend the meeting and speak up against the effort.

“This change in fire coverage is being done because the firefighters believe they will be treated better by South Metro Fire District than they have been by Littleton,” Fey's email read in part. “City Council, in its ongoing effort to honor firefighters and their management, will vote to give the firefighters what they want. The problem is that Council did not consider how much it will cost the taxpayers, or if equal or better service could be obtained at a lower cost from other fire districts.”

Address of grievances

Those who turned out for the public comment portion were a sort of who's who of previous political battles in Littleton, with many having previously been active in fights against urban renewal and development efforts.

Linda Knufinke alleged that South Metro, a large consolidated fire rescue district covering much of the south metro area, actually handles a lower number of calls than the city of Littleton and has a higher cost per call.

Mayor Debbie Brinkman pushed back after Knufinke's comment, saying that she was using inaccurate and out-of-date numbers.

Paul Bingham called the pre-inclusion measure premature and overly generous to South Metro, criticizing the plan for what he characterized as handing over fire equipment and stations without adequate mechanisms for getting them back should the plan go south.

Gloria Shone called the November ballot measure plan unfair, because the city will end up dismantling its fire service either way.

Patrick Fitzgerald had perhaps the night's most scathing comments, accusing councilmembers Karina Elrod, Kyle Schlachter and Patrick Driscoll of “illegal electioneering” before last November's city council election, citing sizable donations from the firefighters' union to each of the candidates, and the announcement of the departure of the fire partners only days after the election.

Don Bruns criticized the contract's language, saying he felt it did not specify that citizens would experience improved service.

David Eberhard echoed Fitzgerald in saying he perceived a conflict of interest between councilmembers who support the merger and their campaign donors.

Pam Chadbourne, perhaps council's most regular commenter, said she felt citizens had not seen adequate evidence that the merger was a good decision.

Carol Brzeczek, who ran against Schlachter and Elrod in last fall's four-way race for at-large council seats, felt the contract is slanted too heavily in favor of South Metro.

Frank Atwood said council should be beholden to city residents over “special interests.”

Marty Bolt said he felt public hearings should have been scheduled for far earlier than the second reading of the pre-inclusion ordinance.

Blowback to comments

Brinkman pushed back against the commenters in a rare instance of response to public comment.

“I heard so many things that were inaccurate, and I think it's an unfortunate event that that level of inaccuracy is what's out there right now,” Brinkman said. “It's incumbent on us to make sure the correct information becomes available and that there's a better opportunity to view the facts and data from reality.”

Fey moved to table the motion regarding the pre-inclusion contract and to discuss it at the April 10 study session. The motion was defeated, with no votes from councilmembers Jerry Valdes, Patrick Driscoll, Kyle Schlachter and Mayor Brinkman. Councilmember Karina Elrod was absent.

The final drama of the meeting came as Fey took the floor and said she wanted to tell “the story of how we got to where we are now” with the fire merger.

Brinkman cut Fey off, saying that her statements were inappropriately timed, as the ordinance was only on first reading and was scheduled for a public hearing in two weeks.

“I respect your position and I will note that I have been shut down as a council member,” Fey said. “I believe all council members have equal voice and you have chosen to put your voice ahead of mine.”

The full pre-inclusion contract is available online for review in the city council packet for the April 3 meeting at littleton.ompnetwork.org.

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