In an unprecedented move, the Johnson County Commission will take control of an embattled rural fire district to try to ensure stable fire protection for an affluent, growing part of the county.
The commission voted 7-0 on Thursday to immediately assume governance of Johnson County Fire District No. 2, which provides fire and ambulance services to about 21,000 people in south Overland Park, Spring Hill, and part of unincorporated Johnson County and north central Miami County.
The county commission had become concerned about the long-term financial viability of the district, which was governed by a five-member volunteer board that critics said was dysfunctional and not adequately preparing for the future.
“It’s an embarrassment,” longtime Stilwell resident Jim Hyatt told the commissioners on Thursday. He said the fire district is experiencing rapid growth, with “million dollar homes,” and needs to get away from a “good old boy system” of a volunteer board, toward professional governance by the county.
The district’s volunteer board chair, Darrel Dougan, strongly objected to the commission’s takeover decision. He said the board has worked hard to protect the fire department’s best interests, was not given a fair opportunity to address concerns, and the financial challenges were manageable.
“The premise that we are in a financial situation that is insurmountable is wrong,” Dougan told the commission.
Even critics acknowledged the district’s fire department is first rate, with an excellent fire chief and employees. The department has four stations and about 60 full- and part-time employees.
But critics worried about a serious looming deficit, in part because Overland Park’s contract with the district ends in 2022, at an estimated revenue loss of more than $770,000 annually. Also, friction between the district’s board and the Spring Hill City Council jeopardized that annual contract, threatening another revenue loss as early as next year.
Commissioners also had concerns about the district board’s refusal to require that fire employees be covered by the county’s code of ethics.
In an interview with The Star, Dougan said a volunteer board is still preferable.
“I’ve never seen a government function, or any function, that’s moved into a larger government entity become more cost effective for the patrons of that taxing body,” he said. “It’s preferable to have a board of volunteers and users of the service.”
But Johnson County 3rd District Commissioner Steve Klika, who represents the area that includes Fire District 2, said the situation posed “a perfect storm” of projected financial deficits, employee morale problems and small town personality conflicts that were not healthy for long-term professional fire protection.
This is the first time the county has taken over a rural fire district. Klika said it may be a model for dealing with the county's other two rural districts, including the Northwest Johnson County Consolidated Fire District, which serves De Soto.
"The rural and suburban areas have to come together," he said, arguing that county government can provide a more global perspective than the more parochial fire districts.
Klika raised concerns about the district back in March, prompting a review by Acting Deputy County Manager Maury Thompson. Thompson concluded that pension expenses and other district costs are rising faster than revenues, especially with Overland Park’s plan to take over its own fire protection for south Overland Park from District 2 in 2022. Difficulties with the annual Spring Hill contract renewal exacerbate the situation.
He projected revenues of $5.6 million but expenses of $5.7 million in 2019 and even greater deficits going forward.
“As a result, Fire District #2 is unlikely to remain financially viable beyond 2021, without raising the fire district mill levy or affecting services levels,” Thompson wrote.
Dougan disputed that analysis. He told county commissioners Thursday that the county’s own data and property appraisal projections over the next few years show significant revenue increases even without a mill levy change. He said the district would be fine even with the loss of Overland Park and predicted the board could conclude a new contract with Spring Hill as it does every year.
Some commissioners questioned why the fire board had voted 2-1 with one abstention not to have fire employees be subject to the county’s ethics code.
Dougan, who abstained on that issue, said the board is subject to the county’s ethics code and the employee question should not be a major sticking point.
“Telling somebody to do the right thing doesn’t guarantee they’re going to do it,” he said. “If their moral compass isn’t strong enough to do what’s right, then having a rule is not going to change it.”
Dougan told The Star that he has personally worked hard to protect the district’s financial interests, trying to drive a harder bargain for more money from Spring Hill, to make sure it is paying its fair share of the district’s costs.
In another example, he said that after bids for a new fire station came in way over budget, he pushed for a new approach that resulted in affordable bids and a better product.
If the district is really in dire financial straits, Dougan questioned whether all county residents are going to want to subsidize it.
“How is it going to be better for the county if the entire county is obligated to fund this?” he asked, arguing the district can solve its own problems and the board was not a “good old boy network.”
“It was a very efficiently run board,” Dougan said.
But at Thursday’s commission meeting, Spring Hill Mayor Steve Ellis and Council President Chris Leaton described the negotiations over the contract renewal as “toxic.”
They said they hold the fire department in the highest regard but did not have a good relationship with the board and felt the county would provide more accountability.
Klika said he expects an advisory board of district taxpayers will be appointed to help oversee the district. He said the change will give the fire department helpful professional guidance from the county’s human resources, legal and financial personnel.
Fire Chief Jim Francis, who will now report to the county manager’s office, welcomed the change.
“I view this as very favorable,” he said. “I think the county will be the better position for us, moving forward in that area, especially when it comes to contract negotiations.”
He said the district needs to prepare prudently for a future of new home construction and strong growth in Johnson County's southern edge.
“That is our growth area and that will be our future challenge, staffing wise,” he said.