Littleton council approves big step in fire merger plan

City department to be dissolved, South Metro to provide coverage

Posted 4/23/18

Littleton took a big step toward leaving the firefighting business at the April 17 city council meeting, with councilmembers voting 6-1 to initiate a process to dissolve the city's fire department …

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Littleton council approves big step in fire merger plan

City department to be dissolved, South Metro to provide coverage

Posted

Littleton took a big step toward leaving the firefighting business at the April 17 city council meeting, with councilmembers voting 6-1 to initiate a process to dissolve the city's fire department and seek full inclusion in the jurisdiction of South Metro Fire Rescue, a large consolidated district that covers much of the southern suburbs.

Council approved a “pre-inclusion agreement” with South Metro, signing off on a contract that calls for citizens to vote this fall on whether to allow South Metro to expand its boundaries to cover Littleton. If citizens reject the measure, the city will contract for fire service from South Metro anyway, and conduct repeated elections seeking voter approval for full inclusion in the district.

If voters approve inclusion in the district, homeowners will see their monthly property taxes raised by roughly $10. In return, proponents say, residents will receive the security that comes with membership in an elite fire district with a stable future.

The effort has drawn the endorsement of local governments, business groups and former city councilmembers.

The effort is not without detractors, including District 3 Councilmember Carol Fey, whose tenure on council since her election last November has been largely defined by her steadfast skepticism of the unification plan, and a group of citizen watchdogs who cut their teeth on city political battles of years past.

'Our own doing'

Efforts to merge the fire department kicked off last November, when the city's two remaining fire partners — Highlands Ranch Metro District and Littleton Fire Protection District, which largely surround the city and contracted with Littleton for fire service — announced they were cutting ties with Littleton and seeking inclusion with South Metro. Cunningham Fire Rescue, a third fire partner, had announced the prior summer that it was cutting ties with the city.

The situation was a long time in coming, City Manager Mark Relph told council on April 17.

“We've struggled with our existing partnerships for a long time,” Relph said. “Why are we here? Some would argue it's our own doing. The partnership had struggled to understand how we would financially achieve a master plan that we all wanted, but recognized the cost was above our reach.”

The partners announced in November they were ending their decades-long relationships with the city to join South Metro, effective at the start of 2019..

Council weighed its options at a December study session, looking at the pros and cons of going it alone, or potential mergers with South Metro, Denver Fire or West Metro, another large consolidated district.

The options quickly fell away: Denver operates at a lower level of service and does not share a significant contiguous border with the city; West Metro charges a higher mill levy than South Metro and also lacks a contiguous border; and a standalone department would necessitate a substantial spike in property tax rates while delivering a greatly reduced emergency response capacity.

'They don't need us'

Whereas Littleton's fire partners had the luxury of a longer contract negotiation period, Littleton itself has been left playing catch-up, Relph said.

“I've heard comments about whether the city was diligent in negotiating a favorable contract for the city with South Metro,” Relph said of having to sell a measure that will increase taxes. “We are in a weak negotiating perspective. South Metro doesn't need us ... 'Negotiation' is an inappropriate word. It probably overstates what the city's position has been.”

The idea of merging Littleton's firefighting force with South Metro has been around for at least a decade, said Littleton Fire Chief Chris Armstrong, citing studies dating back to 2008 suggesting the existing partnership was on shaky financial footing.

Armstrong said South Metro provides top-tier service, citing their accredited status through the Commission on Fire Accreditation, and an Insurance Service Office rating of 1, as opposed to Littleton's lower rating of 2.

A standalone department could be dangerous, Armstrong said, because it would leave the city understaffed in the case of large or multiple emergencies.

“One structure fire, just from the initial alarm, would require 19 people — more than we'd have on duty on a given day,” Armstrong said. “A standalone department isn't feasible. It's not safe for citizens or firefighters.”

If voters approve the inclusion plan, the city cannot be cut loose and left to fend for itself , said city attorney Steve Kemp.

Endorsements pile up

The firefighters' union endorsed the inclusion plan, which union president Joel Heinemann said his group has long been pushing for.

“The heart of a firefighter is always service to the community, and we put that foremost,” Heinemann said. “We believe this option provides the very best in service, we believe in the fiscal sustainability this provides us. That's why were' supporting it. There's no other reason. As president, it's about providing safety for the firefighters.”

The effort drew a slew of other endorsements, including former mayor Susan Thornton, former councilmember Bill Hopping, Columbine Valley Mayor Richard Champion, the South Metro Denver Chamber of Commerce, and the Littleton Business Chamber.

Detractors speak up

The measure has raised the ire of some veterans of Littleton political battles.

Former councilmember Doug Clark made his first appearance in council chambers since being ousted in last November's election, calling the merger a boondoggle because only a minimum of calls that Littleton Fire Rescue responds to are actual fires, which Chief Armstrong said South Metro would be better equipped to handle.

For the bulk of calls, which largely involve medical emergencies, South Metro would be a worse option because they don't staff paramedics on all trucks like Littleton does, Clark said.

Armstrong responded to Clark's concern later in the meeting, saying that South Metro staffs paramedics on some fire engines, moving them to higher call volume areas at different times of the day or week.

Several commenters expressed concern that the city intends to pay off the remaining debt on recently purchased fire trucks and hand them over to South Metro.

Armstrong responded that handing over the apparatus transfers liability to South Metro to maintain expensive, high-tech equipment, and that the fire engines will stay in the same places performing the same jobs.

Some detractors brought stronger language to the table.

Linda Knufinke called the effort “an all-out assault on democracy” because the city will contract with South Metro for fire service even if voters reject inclusion.

Patrick Fitzgerald repeated his assertion from the last city council meeting that Councilmembers Karina Elrod, Kyle Schlachter and Patrick Driscoll were voting to approve the plan in a quid pro quo for four-digit campaign contributions from the firefighters' union ahead of last November's election.

“Well, congratulations to the city council,” Fitzgerald said. “They're going ahead full steam and giving the firefighters union the results that they bought and paid for … I would try to shame you, but It seems most of you have no shame.”

Frank Atwood likened the firefighters to the Praetorian Guard, the elite ancient Roman soldiers who once guarded the Caesars.

“In 193 A.D., Rome's emperor is assassinated,” Atwood said. “Pertinax is stabbed to death after refusing the Praetorian Guard's demands to be paid off. As councilmembers, who are you beholden to? At what threshold do you belong to your special interest campaign contributors? At what level would you recuse yourself? When do you begin to fear the Praetorian Guards' greed?”

Council votes to move forward

Fey, the lone dissenting vote on council against the plan, said she could not vote for the measure because she felt it lacked a guarantee of a level of service that South Metro had to maintain to stay in Littleton's good graces.

Kemp said the contract does include an agreement that the city and South Metro will develop a plan to meet accreditation standards.

Councilmember Peggy Cole voted for the measure despite her trepidation.

“I'm not real happy but I think we're backed up against — I don't know if it's a wall or a cave or what,” Cole said. “It's a disappointing situation.”

Councilmember Patrick Driscoll bristled at the assertion that he was voting for the plan for the sake of campaign donors.

“The insinuation that a thousand dollars would buy my vote is — you don't know me as a person or my integrity,” Driscoll said. “I'm about the citizens and what's right for our families and neighbors. This is the right decision for Littleton, and the right decision to make sure we're being looked after indefinitely.”

Councilmember Jerry Valdes said it's time to get the show on the road.

“We have discussed this many times and it's time to move on,” Valdes said. “There's no one perfect solution.”

Councilmember Kyle Schlachter said he felt confident in the decision.

“This distrust and outrage we've seen here is not surprising but disappointing,” Schlachter said. “I know this is a big change in operations and finance. Change can be scary, especially when it's complex… This pretty much is our only option, and it happens to be the best option.”

Fey said she would have like to have seen citizens drawn into the process in a bigger way.

“I wish we had had citizens involved earlier to use their insight and diligence in our decision making,” Fey said. “This is the first time that citizens could officially speak on this issue. Maybe the next time we go through a big process we can get citizens involved earlier.”

Fey elaborated on her vote against the plan in an email.

"I believe that because there are no specific performance standards in the contract, the citizens are not properly protected, and so I had to vote against the contract with South Metro Fire District," Fey wrote.

Councilmember Karina Elrod said the city was making the best of a tricky spot.

“We are in a difficult situation and this isn't how we want to negotiate,” Elrod said. “We wish we had more time and more information. We are making the best choice we can, and we're lucky that we have something like South Metro, a top-notch partner to work with.”

Mayor Debbie Brinkman said the change was not easy, and she understood the partners' frustration, as she said Littleton's relationship with them was dependent on who was on city council.

“The community should be incredibly proud of this decision,” Brinkman said.

Several steps remain before the effort can officially be added to the November ballot: South Metro Fire Rescue will hold a public hearing of its board on May 2, then the effort must be approved by the Douglas County District Court. Voters in Highlands Ranch and Littleton Fire Protection District will vote on their own inclusion measures on May 8.

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