Editorial: Fire department annexation not clear cut

Published Mar 9, 2013 at 04:00AM

We don’t know when Bend city councilors will decide whether or not to annex the city’s fire department to the rural fire protection district that surrounds the city. We do know that there is a clear downside to breaking the fire department away from direct city control.

City public safety services, including those supplied by the fire department, are paid for largely out of the city’s general fund. In Bend, the general fund pays for a few broad categories of services, including police and fire, which account for $54.5 million of the $68 million in the fund.

That leaves little room for growth in the fire department without added income. And that, of course, is what the annexation idea is all about. It’s a choice, that was used a couple of years ago in Redmond, when that city’s fire department outstripped the city’s ability to pay for it.

Yet annexation comes at a price.

If city officials do agree to annexation, they must persuade voters to go along with the idea. In Redmond, that was accomplished by reducing city taxes by the amount they would have increased in the new, larger district. While Redmond officials wisely amended their charter to make raising taxes again difficult, it is not impossible.

More important, annexation takes the fire department out of the competition for general fund dollars. No longer would the city’s budget committee and city council have to weigh the needs of the department against other priorities. If you’re the fire chief or the city manager, that no doubt can be a good thing.

It isn’t, however. Competition forces the fire department, the police department and other general fund recipients to run as efficiently as they can, for one thing. Competition requires the city to decide what is most important, what is less so and what might not be needed at all, where the general fund is concerned. That, too, is important.

We don’t believe those are things that should be given up lightly. The city should explore all its options, including a local option levy to finance part of public safety, before it decides to cut the fire department loose.