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Fusion of fire departments should be done in phases, consultant's report says

Greater cooperation between Medford Fire-Rescue and Jackson County Fire District No. 3 — and even a merger — are feasible and would save money, but any changes should be done in a phases, according to a consultant's recommendation.

City Council members Thursday held a study session to pore over the 156-page report they had received electronically just a day earlier. Representatives of Emergency Services Consulting International, which prepared the document, gave an overview at the meeting.

"All the recommendations are feasible; they are not reaches," said Don Bivins, senior associate with ESCI. "They don't make sweeping changes in the organizations."

City and fire district officials began discussing cooperative arrangements last year. Officials of Medford Rural Fire Protection District No. 2, which contracts for services from Medford, voiced concerns about being excluded from the early phases of the discussion.

Several council members said they need time to study the report, and some wanted a longer time line to get input from stakeholders and the public. City Manager Eric Swanson initially proposed having all input from stakeholders by July 6.

"Should we have a study session with District 2?" asked Councilman Tim Jackle.

He also recommended that a public hearing be held.

Noting a 50-year relationship between District 2 and the city, Councilman Bob Strosser said he wanted a study session with the district.

"There are going to be a lot of people affected by this plan," said Mayor Gary Wheeler. "I like Mr. Jackle's idea of a public hearing."

Council members also called for communication with other stakeholders, including the International Association of Fire Fighters. They asked for another council study session after more time for research.

At the end of the session, Swanson said staff would evaluate the input and respond to concerns.

Four strategies are proposed in the report. The first one is a status quo option that would make no changes to current arrangements. The other three, recommended in a phased progression, are intergovernmental agreements, contract for service by Medford from District No. 3 and ultimately annexation of Medford into Fire District No. 3.

The report suggests agreements be done during this year and next. If those work well, a contract could be considered from 2015 to 2018. The earliest recommendation for annexation, which would require voter approval, would be 2018.

Intergovernmental agreements already exist between the two agencies. They cover sharing of duty officers, battalion chief response and vehicle services.

ESCI says savings of up to $2.3 million could be achieved over three years if agreements were reached to cover shared administration and support services, operations oversight, training, purchasing and services such as code enforcement and fire prevention. Any or all of the options could be implemented.

The fire chief position in Medford and the operations chief position in District No. 3 are both filled on an interim basis and could be eliminated through the agreement.

Eugene and Springfield share a chief under an agreement, reported Jack Snook, president of ESCI. Such agreements and mergers are becoming the norm in many parts of the country as governments strive for greater efficiency to contain costs, he said.

Contract for services "would be a little more difficult to implement," said Bivins. But savings could be equal to or greater than those in the first option. It would unify both agencies at all levels.

Annexation would be the most difficult step, said Bivins. Voters in both Medford and District No. 3 would need to approve the step.

"You would need to address the situation with District 2," said Bivins. "There's also a great deal of education that needs to take place with the public."

Analysis of finances and operations for both the city and district are included in the report. Even if no changes are made, the recommendations could lead to more efficient and effective organizations, said Bivins.

ESCI's report can be seen on the city's website at www.ci.medford.or.us.

Tony Boom is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Reach him at tboomwriter@gmail.com.