F’ville extinguishes fire dept. merger with Fayette

It was an idea designed to save money by consolidating the Fayetteville Fire Dept. with Fayette County and, at the same time, rolling back the millage rate to offset an increase that would be paid by city taxpayers for what they would owe on the fire district tax. But the June 21 work session of the City Council ended with a consensus that the city should retain its own fire department.

City Manager Joe Morton began the meeting by laying out two fire service delivery options: consolidation or continuing the department as it is. Morton noted that the draft plan had not been seen by the mayor and council. He requested that the meeting result in the council giving city staff direction so one of the options could be explored and refined.

As outlined, the consolidation option would have the county accept the city’s two fire stations and all personnel, with staff receiving pay increases to achieve parity with county personnel.

On the financial side of consolidation, Morton recommended a millage rate reduction that would neutralize the impact city taxpayers would see through the fire district millage rate, something they do not currently pay since the city, with its own fire department, is not a part of the county fire district.

“The citizens won’t have to pay an extra dime,” Morton told the council.

The second option was one that would have the city continue to operate the fire department. That option would require eliminating six positions with the culmination of the SAFER firefighter grant program. Three of those positions are already vacated through attrition and the remaining three could either transfer to the police department or be eliminated by further attrition.

After the discussion Morton asked for the council’s direction on the issue.

Councilman Walt White spoke first, saying he wanted the city to keep the department in-house.

“I think we keep the fire department. It looks like there’s a way to do it and get through the recession and make it work without a tax increase,” White said.

Councilman Larry Dell also weighed in, advising that the council keep the fire department in the city.

Councilman Ed Johnson during the discussion wanted to hear from the city firefighters, many of whom were in the council chambers for the meeting. In all, nine firefighters spoke and each asked that the department remain a part of the city. Johnson said he preferred to have the department maintain its autonomy by staying with the city.

Councilmen Paul Oddo and Mickey Edwards in their comments said they were not prepared to make a recommendation at the time.

So though no vote on the merger was taken, Morton noted that the consensus showed that the council favored having the fire department continue to operate as a part of city government.

The proposal to consolidate city and county fire operations came at the city’s request following the topic being discussed at the council retreat earlier this year.

Fayetteville is also looking at the potential for selling or merging the city water department to Fayette County as a further cost-saving measure. But at the end of the regular session Thursday night city Assistant Finance Director Ellen Walls asked, and the council agreed, that she and water department supervisor Chris Hindman be allowed to develop an alternative plan to the merger. More information on the plan is expected sometime this fall.