Friday, October 31, 2014

Fayetteville council votes down consolidation

2014-04-24

By Josh Akeman

Fayetteville city council met for over four hours on Wednesday before a packed council chambers to decide on whether to vote on consolidating the Fayetteville Fire Department with the county's fire services. Ultimately, the council voted 3-2 against consolidation, to the cheers of the people in attendance.
The meeting included comments from over 40 people, including an impassioned speech by Fayetteville Fire Chief Alan Jones against consolidation which drew a number of cheers from the crowd as he made his points.
Decorum went out the window for the most part. While comments from the crowd are not typically allowed outside of the public comment sections, they were frequent and ongoing throughout the meeting. Mayor Clifton announced before the meeting that there would be a three- minute limit on each speaker, but many went beyond or well beyond the three minutes, often giving dismissive or sarcastic remarks when Clifton attempted to cut them off.
Former councilmen Al Hovey-King and Larry Dell and former mayor Ken Steele all interrupted extensively from their seats in the crowd.
Despite overwhelming opposition from the attending crowd, Clifton continued to defend the merits of consolidation.
The concept of consolidation first arose in 2012 but was voted down by the Fayetteville city council. Since then, long time councilmen Larry Dell and Walt White have been replaced by Jim Williams and Scott Stacy. The issue arose again at Fayetteville's city council retreat earlier this year.
A similarly heated joint city-county meeting was held on the matter on April 9 where County Administrator Steve Rapson presented a consolidation plan. The county said consolidation would save money for the city while maintaining or possibly improving service levels due to increased efficiency. Improved emergency medical service was also touted as city fire fighters would be required to earn paramedic certification as county fire fighters are currently. The county also promised that the new Fire Station 93 on Veterans' Parkway in West Fayetteville by 2016 rather than the city's projection of 2018.
Fayetteville's Fire Chief Alan Jones spoke at length, disputing a number of the selling points for consolidation.
Mayor Clifton pointed out that the county's projection would staff Station 93 with four personnel per shift, greater than the city's projected minimum of two. Jones took issue with that projection being touted as a positive, saying that the plan called for staffing the new fire station with the existing staffing level of 51 people per shift county-wide.
"I imagine there'd be some hiring," Clifton said.
"No that's not what they proposed, they proposed there'd be the exact same staffing that we have today," Jones responded. "The only way they can do that is if they pull staffing out of the county and bring it into the city."
Jones explained that the plan called for the equivalent of two full time city positions (broken into nine part-time job shares currently) to be eliminated, meaning the county would have two fewer personnel immediately until they were planned to be restored in 2016 with the raising of Station 93.
Clifton repeated the point that new people could be hired.
"That's not what the plan calls for, it blows your savings out of the water," Jones objected. "That's why they have to do it with existing personnel." The response drew loud cheers from the crowd. Clifton replied, "Good point."
Clifton then moved on to discuss the city's efforts in the previous week to sort out employee concerns about compensation and benefit packages.
Jones thanked the city staff for doing an excellent job working out those concerns, but said the true problem with consolidation was not money.
"If you look at the presentations that we were given across the street and tonight it looks like everythings taken care of," Jones said. "There's going to be opportunities, promotions, pay increases, all of that was promised. So why do we still have a problem? We don't believe the brochure. We don't believe the brochure."
Jones went on to criticize the plan as automatically placing county staff above city staff.
"When this came up last time we basically got the same plan. All the city senior staff is replaced with county staff. I'm replaced by the county fire chief, my deputy chief is replaced by the county deputy chief, my shift commanders are replaced by the county shift commanders, our standards, our protocols, our qualifications... all replaced by the counties. That's not a merger, that's not a partnership, that's a take over," Jones insisted.
Jones also denied the suggestion that consolidating and adopting county fire service protocols would streamline service and efficiency.
"I look at it as naive that we can basically take over this 12 square miles of the city of Fayetteville and act like we're just adding 10-percent to our area. This is a totally different animal. When we add the city to the county it's not addition, it's not even algebra, it's calculus," Jones said.
Jones also criticized the proposed organizational chart, which he said had too few personnel in leadership positions to manage operations properly. He suggested it was designed that way to secure savings.
"Why can't we make sure that we don't diminish our command and patrol supervisory safety people. Why are we going to diminish that?" Jones asked. "You know why, because it blows your savings up."
Jones also disputed the suggestion that service delivery would be maintained.
"Two years ago, because of the Great Recession, we had to eliminate six positions. So we had to bring our costs down to be equal about with the county staffing level, that's how they can now take us over and save money. We were too expensive before, once we cut six positions now they can do it and save some money," Jones said.
Jones also took issue with the perception that county fire personnel rely on the assistance of the county to contain fires.
"You need four people to initiate a fire attack. If we have four people on an engine and we can get to a fire in three to four minutes, we can put the fire out, we don't need the other 15 people showing up. They can go home," Jones insisted.
Jones also challenged the notion that the county's Advanced Life Support (ALS) standards would be a major improvement.
"One thing that's come up, ALS. That all of a sudden a big important thing. It's come up before this plan was floated,' Jones said. "My question is, for the ALS county and ALS engine, where is the equipment funded from. Does it come out of the EMS [Emergency Medical Services] fund or the fire fund?" Jones asked, addressing the question to Chief Scarbrough.
"Most of our equipment comes out the EMS fund," Scarbrough replied.
"Which the city of Fayetteville pays into," Jones explained. "If the county can use our funds to outfit their engines they can do the same for us."
Jones was most pointed in addressing the council regarding the automatic aid agreement between the city and county. He explained that the agreement had been set in 1998, stipulating that the nearest station to a fire call would respond first. Since the 2012 attempt at consildation, he said automatic aid had broken down and the county had circumvented the city to respond to calls.
“I've read a lot about jurisdictional boundaries, recently. The ink is still wet on jurisdictional boundaries, because we eliminated those in 1998 and they've been scrambling around and redrawing them since 2013 to bring us where we are today,” Jones said. “We had an automatic aid system where we had no jurisdictional boundaries. We responded to our county brothers and sisters, they responded into the city to help us. There was no gap.”
Jones went on to wonder what caused automatic aid to break down, in his estimation.
“Why has that changed?” Jones asked. “We can see the stats. Aid to the county has been cut in half. We are sitting in the station, having fire trucks drive three miles past our station to go to a call we would be to in two minutes.”
That comment drew groans from the crowd.
“We maintained that system through the five worst years [economically]. If it's an economic issue why wasn't that picked up on before? It didn't become an economic issue or operational issue until consolidation didn't go through in 2012,” Jones said. “Just an awful big coincidence.”
Having made the point that politics seemed to have effected the automatic aid agreement, Jones addressed the council.
“So, is there going to be any consequence that the citizens of Fayetteville need to be aware of if we don't do it this time?” Jones asked. “Automatic aid is the way that you borrow something from your neighbor that you don't have to buy, because we can't afford to buy the same stuff. It's the best thing for our citizens, and it's the best thing for these people who are putting their lives on the line for our citizens every single day.
“Automatic aid should always be, first and foremost, a nonpolitical issue. Take it off the table now. Please!” Jones implored, which garnered loud cheers from the audience.
Jones went on to suggest that the “nearest station should respond first” principle should be restored along with a well- defined system for tracking aid across city-county lines and documenting the financial impacts.
Jones also objected that automatic aid had been in full effect when the county was evaluated for its ISO rating in 2011 (ISO is an evaluation of department performance and service level which impacts home insurances rates in a community, among other things.)
“Automatic aid was figured into the county's ISO evaluation in 2011, and now that's on the table, when we have our evaluation in October of this year?” Jones asked. “They got credit for us, but now all the sudden we may not get that credit for them? That stinks.”
Chief Scarbrough declined to respond, saying he didn’t think this was “the appropriate time to debate Chief Jones.”
County Chairman Steve Brown then took the podim to make a suggestion that county staff at the meeting could address questions at the end of the meeting. He was shouted down by several in the crowd, one person telling him to sit down because he was not a Fayetteville citizen.
Clifton attempted to reign in the interruptions at this point, going back and forth with former city councilman Larry Dell who stood to object to Brown’s involvement in the meeting.
After much back and forth Clifton announced “I don’t want to have to eject anybody, but if it comes to that, I will.”
From there, the meeting proceeded to public comment in which over 40 people spoke against consolidation, aside from one man who said he would prefer consolidation if it meant emergency medical services would be improved.
A part time Fayetteville Fire employee asked what would happen to the city’s fire assets, including buildings, trucks and equipment, wondering whether the county would buy them.
“No, they don’t buy them,” Clifton said, which drew responses from the crowd that “you’re giving it to them,” and “we’re receiving no payments for assets owned by the city.”
Former city councilman Al-Hovey King said he did not believe that promise that the city would roll back the millage rate once the county assumed control of the fire department. He referenced the city looking at consolidation in the mid-90s, an idea that was shot down at the time because “the citizens didn’t want to lose their fire department,” according to Hovey-King.
“We sucked it up, and we went on, and we have one of the best fire departments in this United States of America,” Hovey-King said.
Steve “Woody” Woodworth, a firefigher with the county and city of Atlanta, spoke at length about his concerns, partcularly about how the consolidation would effect Fayetteville Fire Department leadership.
“You want to take a fire chief with a 15-year proven track record and you want to put this in the hands of a fire chief with one year,” Woodworth said. “No disrespect to Chief Scarborough, but some of you admitted to me when we met, that when you take a new promotion or new positon it takes three to four years to get to where you know what works and what doesn't.”
He also came to the defense of Deputy Fire Chief Linda Partridge.
“Chief Partridge has a wonderful opportunity presented in this plan,” he said sarcastically. “All she has to do is take a demotion of three ranks, two depending on whose rank structure you go on. She takes that demotion, and she has the opportunity to now promote in a somewhat larger organization. That's not an opportunity, that's a slap in the face.”
Woodworth also disagreed that service levels could be maintained or improved under a consolidated structure.
“How can you in good consceince tell these people, who are registered voters, that's an increase in service. It is not,” he said, going on to explain that increased service could only be achieved through spending money.
Former mayor Ken Steele recalled that from the 1940s to the ‘60s, Fayetteville and Fayette County were among the poorest in the state, yet “we were able to maintain our fire department through those down times.”
Steele also disputed the use of a projection which showed that the city’s unassigned fund balance would be depleted within five years. The projection was used as part of the county’s presentation, though City Manager Joe Morton confirmed that the projection had been the most conservative outlook and did not account for the likelihood that Station 93 would be financed rather than paid for out of fund balance dollars.
Steele argued the city was discounting potentially increasing revenues from growth that could be coming from growth in the West Fayetteville area.
A number of people lauded the performance of the Fayetteville Fire Department.
More than one wife of a Fayetteville fire fighter asked that the city consider the impact on their families.
One resident said she had not heard the council present any positives for consolidation at either the joint city-county meeting or this one.
“If there are no positives then is this not just a power thing?” She asked. “If they’re going to get the fire department who are are they going to get next? If you give them that, who’s to say next year it’s not the police department? Can you say that’s not going to happen?”
More than one person raised the issue of politics and the upcoming election in which Chairman Brown will be facing two challengers for his seat on the Board of Commissioners.
Most of the council beside Clifton remained silent for the four hours that the public spoke, which preceded the council’s opportunity to discuss amongst themselves prior to a vote.
“I know that most of the people in this room are in opposition to this,” Clifton said. “There are others who didn’t bother to come who are in favor of this.”
Clifton said the county had provide fire service to Tyrone for “many years” and he had spoken to Mayor Eric Dial who said “I am not endorsing consolidation, but we have had no complaints.”
A member of the crowd asked “when did they have their own fire department?’ to which Clifton replied “I don’t know.” Several in the crowd responded “they never did.”
Clifton went on to say his point was the county had provided satisfactory service to Tyrone.
Clifton went on to talk about the tax implications of not consolidating, saying he trusted the county’s intentions not to raise taxes “in the short term.”
“If we keep the fire department, I think the city will be forced to raise taxes, sooner rather than later,” Clifton said, which the crowd responded positively to as many had expressed throughout the meeting that an increase in taxes would be acceptable if necessary to preserve the fire department.
Clifton also said city staff had gotten the indication that consolidation would have no effect on ISO ratings.
Clifton then addressed the loss of control of the fire tax levels to the county and the loss of the fire department.
“The question then becomes, would the city be better served,” Clifton posited.
One woman in the crowd interjected:
“What happens if it doesn’t work, we can’t go back. If it doesn’t work there’s nothing we can do about it except be in the city and suffer from a lack of service. You are supposed to be a city employee, not worry about the county!’
The interjections from the crowd continued for some time as they urged the council to vote against the consolidation.
Councilman Ed Johnson came in then and challenged the assumption that everyone on the city council was “in lock-step” on the matter.
Johnson said he had remained mostly silent to allow the “democratic process’ to play out and collect as much input as possible before deciding.
“I rsepect the city council and the mayor that I sit with, but I, too, found it incredulous that we found ourselves discussing this matter after we put it to a vote in 2012,” Johnson said, saying that he voted against it vehemently then.
“I think we would be doing a true disservice to the men and women of the Fayetteville Fire Department by continuing to address this issue,” Johnson said.
“I heard every one of you stand up and say, I’m willing to accept an increase in my taxes. That may become a reality,” Johnson said.
Johnson then moved to “defeat the proposal for consolidation.”
Clifton attempted to block Johnson's motion, saying that he “was out of order” and had not been recognized.
Johnson argued back that the council's procedure had always been to have a motion followed by a discussion period prior to voting.
Clifton quibbled briefly but then relented.
Councilman Scott Stacy, who said he'd originally come to the meeting in favor of consolidation, seconded Johnson's motion.
Councilman Paul Oddo took a financial view of the matter and said the consolidation concept had been re-raised due to Pinewood and said he saw a valid benefit in the potential savings from allowing the county to build Fire Station 93.
Oddo also said he believed there would be high quality of service with the merger or without.
Oddo said he saw the choice as between consolidating or raising taxes, and suggested that the people present at the meeting didn’t represent the tax concerns of all citizens or, in particular, businesses that pay significantly higher tax bills.
“I don’t think we should leave here tonight without the understanding that if we don’t consolidate taxes will have to go up significantly,” Oddo concluded.
Councilman Jim Williams, who took some criticism from certain speakers for the perception that he supported consolidation, was fairly brief in his comments.
"I think the most important thing that I heard tonight was said early on. If it ain't broke, don't fix it," Williams said.
Councilman Mickey Edwards said “I’m not so sure that raising taxes is going to be well supported by the community,” and went on to discuss what he thought were the possible downsides of increasing taxes.
Clifton said that he agreed with Oddo that the meeting attendees didn’t represent a very good represenation of city businesses or of the roughly 16,000 city residents.
“We do have a very vocal and very passionate group in opposition, and that’s fine,” Clifton said. He went on to continue to defend what he felt to be the benefits of consolidation.
After four and a half hours, the motion was finally put to a vote.
Williams, Johnson, and Stacy voted in favor.
Oddo and Edwards were each opposed.
Oddo made a comment before voting that “there are people that do favor consolidation,” and that he was casting his vote for them so “they have their representation.”
Edwards said he voted no because he “was against raising taxes.”

 

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