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Fire agency consolidation report raises alarms

Numerous errors in a draft report have set off alarms over the possible consolidation of Jackson County Fire District No. 3 and Medford Fire-Rescue.

The consolidation proposal also has prompted Medford Rural Fire Protection District No. 2 to begin discussions that could lead to severing or altering its contract with MFR.

"We wanted them to know we are looking at other options," said Bill Riggert, president of District 2's board. "We're very concerned about this shared-management deal."

Riggert said he was speaking for himself and said his board hasn't taken an official stance yet. However, he said the board is concerned about a possible merger of the two biggest fire agencies in the county and the potential to dilute the service provided to his district.

"We had a marvelous relationship," he said. "We don't see this as being an improvement of any kind."

District 2 has been in discussions with Jackson County Fire District No. 5, which covers the Phoenix area, about a possible collaboration.

Emergency Services Consulting International of Wilsonville is doing a $40,000 study that could lead to increased cooperation or possible consolidation of District 3 and MFR.

However, officials from Medford, District 3 and District 2 all have found significant problems with the first draft of ESCI's report, which everyone acknowledges is still very preliminary.

One of the biggest errors is a graph that shows District 3's property tax revenues remaining relatively flat for the next 10 years, which alarmed some Medford city councilors. A flat revenue picture would mean that Medford could end up subsidizing District 3, some councilors feared.

However, District 3 officials estimate funding actually will increase 40 percent over the next 10 years, comparable to a revenue increase expected for the city of Medford. The fire district has forwarded its concerns to ESCI.

Another issue in the report, which has more than 100 corrections, is that on the acknowledgement page it failed to mention Fire District 2, which covers the rural area to the south of Medford.

Medford Fire-Rescue has provided coverage for Fire District 2 since 1952. Within the rural fire district are 11,326 residents in an area covering more than 30 square miles, mostly on the east, south and somewhat to the west of the city limits.

In 2013, Medford Fire-Rescue responded to 9,574 calls, of which 718, or 7.5 percent, were in District 2.

In return, District 2 provides $1.4 million annually to Medford, along with three fire engines and other equipment. District 2's contribution is about 10 percent of MFR's budget.

Other errors in the report include the suggestion that Medford's Fire Station No. 6 needs to be replaced, even though it is one of the newest stations.

Councilor Bob Strosser said he was alarmed at the number of errors in the report.

"What I want is a fair and impartial report with nobody's finger on the scale," Strosser said.

Strosser said he was disturbed to find that District 2 had been omitted from the acknowledgement page of the report, especially in light of previous criticism that the district was being left out of the discussions.

"They are a crucial partner with the city of Medford and are under contract with them until 2018," he said.

Strosser said he is particularly worried that the partnership between District 2 and the city has been harmed during the discussions.

He said many of the fire engines and other equipment have been purchased by District 2 and are housed in Medford's fire stations.

Consolidation isn't a foregone conclusion, but the city of Medford has taken steps that appear to point in that direction, Strosser said. The city has decided to leave the fire chief position unfulfilled until the report is completed because consolidation could mean fewer administrative staff.

City Manager Eric Swanson last year fired Dave Bierwiler, the former fire chief. Bierwiler said he was fired over the consolidation issue, which Swanson said wasn't the case.

Swanson then appointed Deputy Fire Chief Gordon Sletmoe as interim fire chief. Then, in January, Swanson announced Sletmoe would step down as interim fire chief and be replaced in that role by Deputy City Manager Bill Hoke. Sletmoe announced he was taking a job as assistant fire chief for the Lebanon Fire District on April 28. Hoke is not a trained fireman.

"The city manager is ultimately accountable to the City Council," Strosser said. "We want to make sure we have a properly certified fire chief."

Strosser said he was concerned to see a bar graph in the draft report showing District 3's revenues remaining flat. He said the city needs to get assurances that it is receiving accurate numbers.

A representative from Emergency Services Consulting International of Wilsonville said the company doesn't discuss a report before it is finalized.

District 3 Fire Chief Dan Peterson said he was surprised at the number of errors in the report but still has confidence in ESCI's abilities.

"There were a few more errors than you'd expect," Peterson said.

But, he said, people shouldn't jump to conclusions based on a report that still is very preliminary.

"Let's let this report get finished." he said.

District 3's revenues over the past 10 years increased 61 percent. Only in 2012-13 did the district show a slight dip in revenues because of declining property taxes after the recession.

"Everybody was experiencing a real loss in value," he said.

Peterson said the revenue projections going forward allow for adequate reserves and adequate funding of capital projects.

"We're fine, and we're going to be fine," he said.

His district has not, and will not, ask the 49,000 residents for any additional money to pay for fire services, Peterson said.

Peterson, who formerly worked with MFR, said he personally isn't convinced that consolidation would work because of the complicated governance that would have to be set up to cover both agencies.

He said it is more likely that Medford and District 3 could expand on joint training, fire marshal duties and the utilization of similar equipment.

As it is, his firefighters respond to fires in Medford, and Medford firefighters respond to calls in his district under mutual-aid agreements.

"These responses are pretty routine now," he said. "We are working seamlessly together."

District 3's budgeted revenues in the current fiscal year are about $10.6 million and are projected to hit almost $11 million in 2014-15. Medford's revenues are estimated at $13.8 million this fiscal year.

Councilor Daniel Bunn said the city of Medford hasn't made any decisions about consolidation, and he said he has his doubts that consolidation is in the cards.

But, he said, he wants to wait until the report is completed before he and the council consider their options.

Bunn said District 2 has been invited to every meeting about this issue, though he acknowledges there was one meeting where they weren't invited.

Also, he said it was regrettable District 2 wasn't included in the preliminary acknowledgement page of the report.

"We're not trying to snub them," Bunn said. "We've made every overture we can think of to include District 2."

Reach reporter Damian Mann at 541-776-4476 or dmann@mailtribune.com. Follow him at www.twitter.com/reporterdm.

A preliminary report on possible consolidation between Medford Fire-Rescue and Jackson County Fire District No. 3 has officials concerned after more than 100 mistakes were found including incorrect revenue projects for District 3. - file photo