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Ashland council approves studies into police, fire services

The Ashland City Council has unanimously approved studies into the potential consolidation of the police and fire departments into regional services.

Study proposals cite long-standing discussions about the regionalization of emergency services and a staffing crisis brought on by the pandemic.

According to council documents prepared by interim City Manager Gary Milliman, the study regarding fire and emergency medical services will analyze the feasibility of joining Ashland Fire & Rescue with Jackson County Fire District No. 5 and/or other jurisdictions — a possibility already under consideration in the City Council’s long-range fiscal discussions.

“[Both proposals] feed into the long-range financial planning effort and are intended to identify cost savings and efficiencies that would impact the general fund in the long term,” Milliman said.

Last week, the council approved a cost up to $38,000 for the study, to be conducted by the Portland State University Center for Public Service. The school submitted a proposal for “consulting and analysis of options for Fire/EMS service provision and governance” Sept. 17, according to council documents.

In Ashland, revenues are limited by “state-imposed pre-emptions and limitations,” and “in this environment of limited resources, the biennial budget for fire and rescue services has increased from $13 million in 2013-15 to $19 million in 2019-21, an inflation-adjusted increase of 34%,” according to the proposal. “PERS costs alone increased by 73% in that time period. At the same time, the city is concerned about a possible reduction in the city’s ISO rating.”

Fire District 5 covers an unincorporated area with roughly the same population as Ashland, and other Oregon cities have used district and department consolidation as a cost-saving and efficiency strategy, according to the proposal. Other potential strategies include sharing personnel, contracts for service and annexation to a district.

“This study will explore these kinds of alternatives with the goal of identifying the benefits, costs, advantages and disadvantages to the jurisdictions and taxpayers,” according to the proposal.

For the study, CPS will collect and analyze information such as budgeted and actual revenue and expense trends; personnel pay and classification schedules, collective bargaining agreements and volunteer enlistments; quality and quantity breakdown on calls for service, CERT training, building inspections and additional work; and issues at various levels of government that influence changes to the organization.

According to a project timeline, the study will focus on data gathering through December, followed by interviews with key staff and analysis of options by spring 2022. Revisions based on city feedback are scheduled for April, leading up to a final recommendation and presentation of findings in June.

“It also achieves one of the goals that we set forth back in March as a committee to review our spending on capital intensive services,” Councilor Shaun Moran said in support of a motion to approve the study.

The council also approved a joint study with the city of Talent to analyze the feasibility of consolidating the two cities’ police services.

In early November, staffing shortages forced the Ashland Police Department to halt an intergovernmental agreement with Talent to provide public safety coverage, according to Ashland police Chief Tighe O’Meara.

Compared to the 16 patrol officers typically divided across four shifts, APD is working with about 10. The department still accomplishes 24/7 patrol coverage with overtime and “burning officers out,” O’Meara said at the Nov. 2 council meeting.

On Tuesday, City Council approved terminating the IGA for 12 hours of daily patrol services in Talent; the amended agreement allows Talent continued access to Ashland’s on-duty supervisors, detectives and training for $750 per month.

“The city managers and police chiefs of both cities believe there are cost savings and service enhancement to be achieved through a broader agreement to consolidate police services for both communities under one police department,” according to council documents prepared by Milliman and O’Meara.

Ashland joins a nationwide struggle to recruit officers, the memo said, citing a 2019 membership survey by the International Association of Chiefs of Police that found more than three-quarters of agencies had trouble recruiting qualified candidates, and one-quarter reduced or eliminated services because of staffing shortages.

The city of Talent will serve as the lead agency on the study, also to be conducted by PSU, with Ashland covering half of the cost up to $15,000.

According to the PSU proposal, both the Talent and Ashland police departments “face challenges recruiting, filling and retaining law enforcement officer positions,” and “suffer from several open and unfilled positions.”

As a result, Talent cannot provide police coverage as outlined in policy. Both cities have encountered general fund vulnerability due to tax revenue losses, sustained rising cost trends and fund balance depletion, according to the proposal.

Law enforcement policies and practices in Talent must respect population demographics that are “more multicultural, foreign born, moderate income and with lower house values than most other parts of Jackson County,” the proposal said.

Possibilities to be studied for Ashland include the nuances of governing, structuring, funding and staffing a joint police department, and establishing a substation in Talent.

The study will include a comprehensive financial analysis, comparative case studies and alternative service delivery options, such as consolidation between Talent and Phoenix or a permanent agreement for paid services from APD. The proposal budgeted $28,816 for a five-month project beginning Jan. 15, 2022.