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And then there was one.
The Highlands Ranch Metro District informed the City of Littleton on Nov. 29 that it would be joining Littleton Fire Protection District in severing ties with the city's fire department and merging with the larger South Metro Fire Rescue, leaving Littleton Fire Rescue — the city's department — as the sole remaining entity in a decades-old partnership.
The partners, who plan to commence service with South Metro on Jan. 1, 2019, strongly encouraged the City of Littleton to join them in merging with the large regional district that already provides fire protection for much of the southeast metro area.
The partners made their plea to Littleton city officials in an early-morning meeting at the Littleton Museum on Nov. 30, saying that without the combined strength of Littleton Fire Protection District — which covers the western portion of Centennial, Bow Mar, Columbine Valley, Chatfield and parts of unincorporated Arapahoe County west of the Littleton city limits — as well as Highlands Ranch Metro District, Littleton will be left with a fire department too puny to adequately meet the needs of citizens.
Representatives of LFPD and Highlands Ranch cited similar reasons for the split: increasing costs, a desire for improved service and financial sustainability, and frustration with what they described as an unequal partnership that gives unfair control to Littleton city officials.
South Metro first approached Littleton and its fire partners to propose a wholesale unification in August 2016, said LFPD Board of Directors President Keith Gardner.
“We crunched the numbers and found that over the next five or 10 years, we were looking at a climb to a mill levy of about 10, up from our current 7.67,” Gardner said. “South Metro was offering to lock us in at 9.25, with a higher level of service. How do you go to your voters and say, 'Hey I've got a solution for better service at 10 mills for the next four or five years,' when you've got a 9.25 sitting out there?”
The scales were tipped for LFPD earlier this year when Littleton City Council initially rejected a plan to merge the city's fire dispatch services with South Metro, Gardner said. LFPD and Highlands Ranch sought mediation with the city over that decision, saying the plan's proposed cost savings and increased level of service made it a no-brainer.
Though the city eventually relented and approved the merger, “the damage was done,” Gardner said. “It was a big slap in the face. To be discounted like that accelerated things and made us feel we're on our own here.”
Highlands Ranch officials echoed LFPD, saying that merging with South Metro offers a level of financial sustainability and quality of service — as well as predictable governance — that they feel Littleton can't offer.
“Finances are the key thing,” said Highlands Ranch Metro District board member Carolyn Schierholz. “We're stewards of public money and we've got to spend it wisely.”
Schierholz said when she started on the board a decade ago, Highlands Ranch was spending $6 million a year on fire protection. Today she said the number is closer to $9 million without a decrease in response times. South Metro, on the other hand, is offering a fixed rate for the foreseeable future, she said, adding that South Metro also offers a higher-rated service, with an Insurance Service Office rating of 1, compared to Littleton's 2 — which may translate into a lower property tax rate for businesses.
Schierholz brought up a concept that emerged time and again in the meeting: economies of scale. South Metro's large size means it can more quickly respond to large-scale emergencies or a variety of simultaneous incidents, she said.
“When 70 to 80 percent of our calls are medical, every second counts,” Schierholz said. “Same with a house burning down.”
Representatives of the partners eagerly invited Littleton to join them in a wholesale merger with South Metro — something that might need to be approved by city voters. During a special election in May, residents of the LFPD area and Highlands Ranch will decide whether South Metro can expand its boundaries to cover them. The City of Littleton might need to participate in a similar election to join South Metro.
If Littleton decides to stick it out alone, it could find itself too small to function safely, Schierholz said.
“With two or three stations, you can't respond to a nursing home fire,” Schierholz said. “You just can't. And you can't depend on your neighbors to pick you up every time you trip. I hate to say it, but we're playing with lives here.”
Littleton Fire Rescue Chief Chris Armstrong threw his support behind the merger proposal.
“At the end of the day, it doesn't matter what patch the firefighters wear, what truck they ride, or who cuts their paycheck,” Armstrong said. “They want to provide the best service they can, and they know right now they're not. Our resources are strained and our call volume is going up. Smaller departments just can't compete with economies of scale.”
Littleton residents could be on the hook for costs above South Metro's 9.25 mill levy offer if the city decided to stick it out alone, according to rough preliminary scenarios prepared by Littleton Finance Director Tiffany Hooten and presented at a city council study session on Nov. 28, with mill levies rising as high as 16 under a scenario that retains EMS service, to just shy of 10 under a bare-bones austerity scenario.
The firefighters themselves are overwhelmingly in favor of a wholesale merger, said Joel Heinemann, president of the Littleton firefighters' union.
“This is an opportunity,” Heinemann said. “The firefighters' association members have unanimously voted to approve moving toward unification. We hope the city is part of it.”
Littleton City Council members kept their cards close to the vest at the Nov. 30 meeting, with Carol Fey and Peggy Cole saying they needed to see more analysis and information on various scenarios before they endorsed a course of action. Karina Elrod did not attend the meeting.
“We need to vet our numbers out more,” said Littleton Mayor Debbie Brinkman. “We haven't run down the options. We have fewer options now than we had prior.”
Highlands Ranch Metro District board member Mark Dickerson was resolute.
“You have an easy sell to constituents,” Dickerson said to Brinkman. “You have to have good fire protection. The voters have to have their input. But when it gets down to it, do you have the sufficient resources left to provide the services you promised? I don't see it. What choice do you have?”
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