Consolidating some functions of Medford Fire-Rescue and Jackson County Fire District No. 3 is probably worth considering. But what's been suggested so far doesn't sound like it would save much money or improve performance.
Jackson County Commissioner Doug Breidenthal, former assistant operations chief for the fire department at Kingsley Field in Klamath County, proposed blending some functions of the county's two largest departments. Officials from both agencies have been talking informally about the suggestion, but real talks began in earnest this week.
At first glance, it seems logical that combining some operations could save money by eliminating duplication. Joint purchases of supplies could generate some savings, for instance.
But beyond that, it's difficult to envision joint efforts short of a full merger working very well.
Officials from both departments insist a complete merger of two departments into one agency is not being discussed. Sharing a management team is on the table, however.
Medford Fire Chief Dave Bierwiler has retired, and the city is not actively seeking a replacement at this time. The city's training chief position also is open, as is District 3's deputy operations chief position.
If the two departments shared those three positions, each agency would save roughly half the salary and benefits of each, or 1.5 full-time-equivalent positions. But those administrators would have to supervise two separate fire agencies simultaneously, with different policies, procedures and, presumably, pay scales.
Not only that, but the agencies' leaders answer to very different government entities.
District 3 is a special taxing district with its own property tax base. It is governed by a board elected by the voters. The board hires and supervises the fire chief.
Medford Fire-Rescue is a city department, supported by the general fund. Its chief, when there is one, reports to the city manager, who in turn serves at the pleasure of the elected City Council.
A single chief overseeing two separate fire agencies would have to somehow answer to two bosses.
Another suggestion on the table is to hammer out a new agreement that would allow the closest station to respond to a fire even if it was in the other agency's jurisdiction. That might have some benefit by reducing response times. But the agreement would have to make sure costs were shared fairly — not an easy thing to accomplish.
Local fire agencies already operate under mutual-aid agreements, which provide for Medford engines to respond to large fires in neighboring fire districts and vice versa. Taking that a step further to reduce response times is worth considering.
We're not suggesting the consolidation talks are a waste of time. Certainly the possibility of saving public money should be explored. But if significant savings aren't there, business as usual may be the better option.