Eugene Weekly : News : 12.10.09


Urge to Merge
Fire department marriage lacks a pre-nup
By Alan Pittman

A rush to merge the Eugene and Springfield fire departments could affect 300,000 people with higher taxes, subsidized sprawl and less public accountability, according to the fine print of a long staff report on the proposal. 

“There is little question that additional tax support will be required,” states a merger report to elected officials from Eugene and Springfield staff. 

The tax increase would most likely come from a new special district. “These districts show a higher degree of success historically to secure public willingness to pass tax measures,” the report states.

But Lane County Commissioner Bill Dwyer warned that voters will think that they are already paying for fire protection. “To charge the people twice for a service they already receive won’t go over,” he said.

Another thorny issue will be compression required by state measures capping property taxes. The compression could mean that other jurisdictions would have less money for police, fire, jail, library and other services. 

Cities would also have to compete on the ballot with the new district. “Adding another entity to compete for scarce resources concerns me,” said Eugene City Councilor Alan Zelenka.

The biggest driver for a tax increase is runaway ambulance costs. But there’s little indication that local bureaucrats have done much to control spending. Eugene/Springfield’s ambulance budget has increased 10 percent per year for the past four years. Eugene/Springfield now charges $1,600 for a ride to the hospital. That’s four to eight times what Medicare/Medicaid considers “reasonable” for the service. 

The $1,600 bill also appears to be far higher than other local governments charge. In 2005 the federal Government Accountability Office surveyed hundreds of providers and found ambulance charges averaged $415.

Controlling spiraling ambulance costs would require tough labor negotiations. At current pay scales, a Eugene ambulance driver can make up to $89,000 a year in wages and benefits with only a high school degree.

Eugene and Springfield staff argue that a merger could save money, but the case appears weak. A key part of the argument is that Eugene and Springfield have more capacity than needed. But that only begs the question of why local taxpayers have been paying for this extra capacity for so many years.

For example, the report claims that Springfield’s training and fire marshal managers can provide the same service to four times more people. “Springfield has the capacity to do both” cities. 

Many of the savings also appear to be possible without a merger by combining job functions, and some appear to be already planned in budget cuts for next year.

The staff report also does not account for the many costs of a merger. A merger appears likely to bring local rural and Springfield firefighters up to Eugene’s high benefit and wage scales. Local regional firefighter unions like that idea, but taxpayers may not.

Fire chiefs and managers could also demand higher salaries and assistants for supervising the larger department. Staff also haven’t accounted for the thousands of hours of staff and consultant time they’ve already spent studying the merger. 

Even if staff claims are accurate, the savings of about $600,000 a year amount to only 1 percent of local fire department spending. 

“Rural calls cost more operationally than urban ones,” the staff report states. But the merger fails to account for this key difference.

A major premise of Eugene’s planning efforts for decades is that a compact city is cheaper to serve. Sprawl requires more firehouses, fire engines and ambulances for the same response times. The difference could mean that Eugene taxpayers end up paying far higher taxes to subsidize the expensive extension of emergency service for sprawl. Springfield Fire Chief Dennis Murphy says this issue can be resolved in contract language, but that remains to be seen.

Eugene appears to bring far more to the merger than other partners. Eugene taxpayers have paid millions for expensive training centers, fire offices, stations, computers and specialized equipment like tall ladder trucks and hazmat teams that Springfield lacks. Springfield, for example, leases rather than owns its fire trucks. 

A merged special district could reduce oversight and accountability. It’s hard for citizens to keep track of special districts, Eugene City Councilor Betty Taylor said. “They just sort of operate in the dark without the citizens knowing what’s going on.”

Many states such as New York, Texas, Kentucky and California have experienced fraud and waste in special districts which operate with little media or public oversight, according to press reports.

Can Eugene trust Springfield with a merger? Springfield recently joined developers in pushing a state bill ending joint urban growth boundary planning and forcing Eugene to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to study growth capacity. Springfield has also shown little interest in cooperating on local jail and human service needs.

Eugene and Springfield values could clash in a merger. Eugene’s fire marshal runs the city’s Toxics Right to Know Ordinance, and the city has emphasized increasing diversity in its fire department. Springfield touts its lack of regulations and is known nationally for an anti-gay measure in the 1990s and more recently for a councilor’s allegedly racist comments against Hispanic immigrants.

Staff and Springfield councilors are rushing to tie the knot. But Eugene’s elected officials appear bewildered. “You’ve gotten ahead of the policy makers, and we’re kind of going whew, gee,” Eugene Councilor Chris Pryor said.