Mayor Mark Holland has boldly decided to take on an essential battle that could lead to better fire and medical emergency services for residents in Kansas City, Kan.
Along the way Holland will be trading punches with Fire Department officials and union members who for decades have pretty much done what they wanted.
The first salvo came in the form of a consultant’s eye-opening efficiency study reported in The Star on Sunday.
It found that Kansas City, Kan., has too many fire stations in older parts of the city and not enough in growing neighborhoods, where residents are understandably concerned about response times for fires and medical emergencies. Combine eight stations into four in the core, the report logically recommended, and open two new stations in western parts of the city.
The study also found that costs to operate the city’s Fire Department are far higher than those in other, comparable cities. That’s a big deal in Kansas City, Kan., given the already high tax burden placed on property owners. To come up with money to build the new stations and improve others, the study suggested a small cut of 5 percent in the number of firefighters.
Some residents in older neighborhoods where a station might be closed could oppose such a move, especially given the perception that newer parts of the city receive more attention from City Hall.
This view has existed for years, partly because the taxpayer-subsidized development of Village West and other attractions there still are not providing the bonanza of public funds that were supposed to help deal with urban core issues such as deteriorating roads and other infrastructure. Instead, incentive deals have been extended so they continue to divert tax revenues to developers, not the needs of older sections of Kansas City, Kan.
The fire union also is ready to push back against major changes such as closing stations or reducing its ranks.
But Holland and the Unified Commission of Wyandotte County and Kansas City, Kan., must stay focused on the most efficient ways to use public funds.
Providing fire and police protection are costly and important services that deserve extra scrutiny from elected officials. That unfortunately has not been done for too many years in the city. Holland also has raised valid concerns about a Fire Department that doesn’t come close to reflecting the numbers of minorities or women in Kansas City, Kan.
Besides the recent study, other reports will be requested in the months ahead, likely including one by a fire union that fears losing some of its grip on power. Holland and others who want a better-run department should welcome these reports — if they point out legitimate flaws in the consultant’s findings and provide even better ways to operate a more efficient fire agency.
Or, other studies could be mere shams aimed at keeping the status quo. If that happens, Holland and the Unified Commission will have to march forward with a proactive plan that protects the interests of residents, not the fire union.