Littleton, South Metro preparing for fire merger

Jan. 1 union preceded by combined training; inclusion vote still ahead

Posted 8/31/18

With only months to go before Littleton Fire Rescue disbands and hands over firefighting duties to South Metro Fire Rescue, the two departments are working closely together to make sure the upcoming …

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Littleton, South Metro preparing for fire merger

Jan. 1 union preceded by combined training; inclusion vote still ahead

Posted

With only months to go before Littleton Fire Rescue disbands and hands over firefighting duties to South Metro Fire Rescue, the two departments are working closely together to make sure the upcoming transition is seamless.

Effective Jan. 1, 2019, Littleton will leave the fire protection business, entering into a contract with South Metro, a large consolidated regional district.

“We have to standardize everything,” Littleton Fire Rescue Chief Chris Armstrong said. “Right down to the hose nozzles, IV needles and emergency medical bags.”

The two districts have merged their training divisions, Armstrong said, and firefighters from the two agencies have been training together through the summer. Analysts are working to identify any additional gaps in policies and procedures.

What remains to be seen, though, is whether Littleton residents will approve a plan to allow South Metro to fully absorb Littleton within its boundaries beginning in 2020. Similar inclusion efforts passed in May in the Littleton Fire Protection District — composed of areas east and west of Littleton proper — and Highlands Ranch.

If the inclusion measure passes, Littleton homeowners will see their total mill levy increase from 6.662 to 11.25 in 2020, translating to an annual tax increase of about $120 a year on a house valued at $370,000.

In return, proponents say, Littleton residents would receive improved fire service at a higher standard, and the benefits of an economy of scale that allows for greater resources and flexibility.

Detractors, however, have raised concerns about the measure's cost and expressed skepticism of the benefits and motives of the move.

If voters turn down the inclusion measure, South Metro would likely hold successive elections seeking inclusion, with the next in May 2019.

The city is prepared to pay the cost for contracting with South Metro out of its general fund budget if the first inclusion vote fails, said City Manager Mark Relph, though he called such an arrangement unsustainable long-term.

“If it doesn't pass, I have to come up with an additional $1.5 million to pay to South Metro every year,” Relph said. “That means a cut to services. It will affect every department in the city.”

The obvious rebuttal, Chief Armstrong said, is “why doesn't Littleton just run its own department?”

“The problem is, if we went as a stand-alone department, the cost of staffing and maintaining our trucks as we do today would exceed the cost of going with South Metro,” Armstrong said.

Operating under full inclusion would provide greater surety moving forward, said South Metro Fire Chief Bob Baker.

“In a full inclusion, we don't have to guess whether sometime down the road if there will be a change in the contract relationship,” Baker said. “Planning, staffing and infrastructure become more challenging.”

Both Baker and Armstrong said they were aware of detractors' arguments, such as those of Littleton resident Carol Brzeczek, who has filed lawsuits against South Metro, and those posted on littletongov.info, an anonymous website that often challenges fire inclusion efforts.

High on the list of such arguments is that Littleton will give away expensive fire equipment, including high-tech fire trucks, to South Metro.

Baker pushed back against that assertion.

“The trucks are staying in the community to serve the people who paid for them,” Baker said. “The same firefighters will be on the trucks, and they'll stay in the same firehouses. The only difference is who's managing them.”

Baker also pushed back against assertions that the merger was pushed for the personal benefit of firefighters.

“Some Littleton people will see their ranks knocked down,” Baker said. “Others will be bumped down the seniority list. They wouldn't support this without believing it was best for their community.”

Baker said the firefighters' unions are in support of the move. Littleton fire union president Joel Heinemann did not respond to repeated requests for comment for this article.

With roughly two months left until Election Day, Relph, Armstrong and Baker said they all plan to present the tenets of the fire merger plan to civic groups.

“We'll talk to anyone who wants to hear from us,” Relph said.

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