The three fire districts that handle calls in rural Johnson County will be examined by a consultant to see where services can be shared and costs cut, the county commission has decided.
As part of an ongoing effort to reign in rising costs to support county fire services, commissioners voted to call for a consultant to find efficiencies among Fire Districts 1, 2 and Northwest Consolidated.
No price tag was put on the measure, but commissioners estimated the study could cost about $75,000.
The idea of a consultant study was highly controversial among commissioners and some fire district officials. Two of the chiefs or their governing boards sent letters to the commission opposing the consultant study.
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Commission Chairman Ed Eilert opposed it as well, saying a strong liaison committee between districts could accomplish the same thing without the added cost. Commissioner John Toplikar called the study an “overreach.”
Nevertheless, the commission voted 4-3 in favor of the study, with Eilert, Toplikar and Commissioner Ron Shaffer voting against.
The fire districts’ budgets have been an ongoing concern because increasing costs have resulted in higher property tax levies and an uneven amount being paid by people in different parts of the county.
The districts have faced a variety of challenges including annexation, aging equipment and changing contracts. But a key factor is the density of the areas they serve. With a larger area to cover and fewer taxpayers, the base is smaller.
Last year, for example, Fire District 1 and Northwest Consolidated District, covering the southwest and northwest parts of the county, respectively, each asked for and received tax rate increases.
Fire District 2, serving southern Johnson County, didn’t ask for a rate increase but did need to issue bonds to replace a fire station.
The fire districts have their own governing boards which set the budgets. However the county commission must give final approval of their tax rates.
Last year commissioners were not happy about having to vote in the higher rates. Some questioned whether the rural districts could continue to be sustainable, hinting that consolidations might be worth studying.
Toplikar and Eilert were the most vocal opponents of the consultant’s study.
“I think the expenditure is unnecessary,” Eilert said. Fire chiefs already regularly meet to find ways to share costs, and more could be done with a regular liaison working with the commission.
Toplikar took it further. Comparing it to recent laws passed by the Kansas Legislature regarding local governments, he said, “This is a classic case of one governmental entity attempting to mandate its agenda on another.” Toplikar said he supported a change in state law that would remove the requirement that the county commission approve the fire district budget, but such a law was not passed.
Commissioner Michael Ashcraft took issue. “Some may think of it as overreach but I think this is a leadership responsibility of the board because every year we have to approve their budget and I have seen repeatedly huge increases,” in the tax rate because of the small scale of the districts, he said.
The fire chiefs were in the room but declined to make any statements to the commission. However two districts filed letters in opposition to a consulting study. Fire District 1’s governing board said there would be “no benefit” in the study and that the money should be used on more important county issues.
James Francis, chief of Fire District 2, also sent a letter. “Fire District 2 is not interested in any future changes that would diminish our present level of service, raise our outstanding ... rating, increase our mill levy, reduce our finances or redistribute our personnel and equipment to subsidize neighboring jurisdictions that are presently understaffed and operating antiquated equipment,” the letter said.
In other county matters at the June 23 meeting:
▪ As debate over gun control heated up nationwide, the commission found itself in the position of loosening restrictions on guns for its employees. The resolution was meant to keep the county human resources policy in line with changes made last session by the Kansas Legislature.
The changes allow employees to carry concealed weapons in county vehicles when they are off county property. They were approved with little discussion.
Commissioner Steve Klika noted he is not anti-gun ownership, but “I have difficulty encouraging guns in the workplace.”
Five commissioners voted in favor with Klika and Shaffer opposed.
▪ The commission also approved the maximum spending for the 2016 county budget.
The budget was very close to the one proposed by County Manager Hannes Zacharias, with no mill levy increase and total spending of $941 million. That amount includes reserves and departments that have dedicated mill levies or user fees, such as wastewater.
The general operating budget without those items is about $337 million.
The maximum budget is only a step in the process. After this point, the county budget can still be changed, but expenditures can’t increase.
The public hearing on the budget will be 7 p.m. Aug. 1 in the board hearing room.