Fire Merger Charges Ahead
Administrative coup flaunts public process
By BONNY BETTMAN MCCORNACK
Eugene and Springfield officials have a radical vision for our cities’ future which will structurally change our governance while undermining land use laws, all in the service of creating a new layer of taxing bureaucracy to pay for exponential growth. They are pursuing their vision by administratively merging both fire and emergency medical service (fire/EMS) departments before settling the overarching policy and taxing issues. This way, they can postpone inconvenient public input and controversial council decisions until the merger is an administrative done deal. The current merger is focused on fire/EMS, but their not-so-distant-future vision includes all public safety services, including police.
It is an administrative coup. Both cities are quietly proceeding with implementation actions to merge their fire/EMS departments. In the interim they will use an intergovernmental agreement (IGA) which administratively gives them rate-setting authority and sets up a self-selected board for decision making. Once that is settled, they will eventually get voter approval to consolidate into a “special district” with new property tax levying authority and a remote governing body and bureaucracy.
It is no accident that city officials are putting the administrative cart before the policy horse. Springfield began planning for this as early as 2002. In June 2004, Eugene administrators properly requested permission, at the front end, to join Springfield in a Metro Plan amendment to negate the Metro Plan policies and create a merged fire district. Administrators hit a dead end when Eugene’s council said no. Initiating Metro Plan amendments requires public input and council policy direction at the front end. This time, officials are taking the path of least resistance and pursuing the merger by administrative fiat and asking for official endorsements later. Public input would be messy and slow because folks can usually sense a tax increase even if it is obscured in sensationalist rhetoric like “in an emergency no one cares what city the ambulance and fire truck comes from.”
Officials claim that merging departments “is a new and creative solution” to solve the current financial crisis, but they’ve been pursuing it for years. They need a new source of taxes because there is no other way for them to fund the astronomical costs of providing fire/EMS to serve their aggressive expansion activities.
They want the merger because it gives them a new dedicated stream of revenue (circumventing tax caps imposed by state Measures 5, 47 and 50) and because each new layer of bureaucracy enlarges the buffer between the public and the deciders. After all, how many more governing body meetings and rate increasing public hearings can an average working person attend? The new “special district” taxing bureaucracy will function in relative obscurity, once established.
Officials cannot prove that bigger is better and more efficient, and their “Cooperative Services Feasibility Study July 2009” contains caveats galore. This study, commissioned by both cities, is a detailed blueprint for merging departments as the first step in establishing a “special district.” It forecasts the “total personnel cost avoidance at full implementation” at $851,000, based on this year’s budget as a sample. But future budgets won’t look anything like 2010.
The study compares only “direct costs” of each city. Even so, disparities abound. Each city differs on things like tax rates, fire stations, response, employees, resources and debt. For example, this merger affects five unions with disparate compensation. The study recommends managing compensation disparities by bringing the lower wages of some employees up to the higher incomes of comparably classified positions. This certainly will win the fealty of the unions, but it is just one expense omitted from the projected savings.
Springfield’s population is 58,000; Eugene’s is 155,000. Despite Springfield’s population being roughly one third of Eugene’s, Springfield has half the number of fire/EMS employees: 108 to Eugene’s 220.
Much of the estimated saving will be realized by not filling current vacancies and making the preposterous assumption that as departments merge and territory expands, the responsibilities of those vacancies will be absorbed by remaining staff and will never be filled. Doesn’t that reveal that they are presently overstaffed? Why not just realize the same savings from leaving vacancies unfilled, without merging?
The study ignores impending urban growth boundary and annexation expansions, including 1,600 acres in Springfield alone. Sprawl increases costs and inefficiency because servicing the outskirts requires building more fire stations and boosting operational budgets to longer travel distances. With a merger, the revenue collected for fire/EMS services from Eugene’s tax/rate payers does not have to be spent proportionally in Eugene. Taxes or rates from both cities will be pooled where they can be disproportionally spent elsewhere. What happens when one community wants to buy new fire stations and the other would rather invest in operations to achieve reduced response times for better medical emergency outcomes? Whose priorities get funded, and who decides? When the money starts rolling in, officials won’t care which city it comes from.
The cities have different authorities granted according to their charters. Springfield’s council participates in collective bargaining and contract negotiations, their legal counsel and manager are their employees, and they have the authority to hire and fire executive managers — such as fire chiefs. Eugene’s council doesn’t have those powers, except through employing the manager. Who hires a new fire chief? For whom will the chief work?
Who negotiates contracts? What happens to Eugene’s charter and our citizens’ ability to affect decision-making through direct representation on council?
The merger will imperil Eugene’s charter provision establishing the Toxics Right to Know law which is administered by the Eugene Fire Department. Inevitably, when city officials move to merge policing services into a public safety special district, then Eugene’s police auditor and Civilian Review Board will also be in jeopardy. Springfield does not have these distinctly Eugene laws. I dare say there are plenty of Eugene officials who would welcome an excuse to eliminate those laws indirectly by merging.
In 2009, $10 million of Eugene’s fire/EMS revenue came from non-tax sources, or fees. Fees never get voted on and are administratively set by the city manager. Seventy-three percent of that is from EMS. Sixteen percent is from current contracts providing fire/EMS services to rural areas: Willakenzie, Zumwalt, Bailey/Spencer, Eugene Rural #1 FPD and River Road Water District. Those contracts, plus Springfield’s three, will be incorporated into the new special district which means urban residents will be subsidizing more expensive service provision to rural areas.
The new taxes generated from merging and special district creation will free up the revenue that each city now spends on fire/EMS services from their general funds (GF), resulting in overall increased revenue for the cities. They will get to keep that GF money while the services are provided and paid for by the new district. This is called back-filling or double-dipping. Although the administrative merger taking place right now is being funded through the two cities’ existing budgets, the plan is clearly laid out that once the administrative merger is complete, the financing will be secured by charging rates through an intergovernmental agreement and evolving into a fire/EMS special district. Eventually they will expand it into a public safety special district, including police services.
All arguments aside, once city officials make the case that merging departments increases efficiency and reduces cost, they are embracing the underlying assumption that those objectives should be our highest aspiration, as opposed to preserving our charter, upholding land use policies, legislating taxpayer fairness, ensuring transparency, preserving unique community values and upholding equitable democratic processes. If streamlined and cheap are our highest goals, then why not merge other departments or the entire city? Why don’t we eliminate all possible redundancy like overpaid city mangers, stratospherically spendy legal counsels, sprawling planning departments, sequestered information technology departments and infamously inefficient public works departments?
Bonny Bettman McCornack is a former Eugene city councilor.