Editorial: Fighting fire with less

Published Nov 19, 2012 at 04:00AM

More with less. That’s the mantra these days for most businesses across the nation. So should it be for government.

The Bend Fire Department is trying to do more with less. Funding from the city is basically flat, while projections for service calls show an increase. Expenses per employee don’t trend down. The department has lost 10 people through attrition and anticipates laying off maybe 6 people in the next two years. The total staff is currently about 80.

The worrying trend for Fire Chief Larry Huhn is his department got slower. In 2011, the department responded to 80 percent of calls within 9 minutes and 59 seconds. In 2010, the same category was 9 minutes and 22 seconds or 37 seconds faster.

The department is looking at what it could do. It has commissioned a study with Deschutes County Rural Fire Protection District No. 2 to look at alternatives. Should the city fire department merge with the rural district, as happened in Redmond? What else could the department do to be more efficient?

Huhn is waiting to see what the study finds, but believes merger with the rural fire district could improve funding. The merged fire district would get its money from a dedicated source that wouldn’t have to compete with other city priorities. Huhn believes he could also save money by contracting out some of the services his department receives now from the city.

The study should provide a useful evaluation of alternatives. But we have two concerns. If a business had to do more with less, it would certainly take a hard look at the salaries and benefits of its employees. Bend’s study is not explicitly doing that. There’s to be “an overview of existing personnel, positions, salaries, benefits and any additional cost shall be completed to establish a financial baseline.”

There may be many appealing things about fire protection for Bend getting its own distinct taxing district and its own distinct board to operate it. Is that best for the residents of Bend? If it meant there would be a guaranteed improvement in fire protection, that would be something to consider.

There are also costs.

It would mean a new fracturing and factionalization of government. The Bend City Council now tries to make difficult choices prioritizing various needs of the city. It tries to balance police, fire, roads, water, sewers and more. Bend’s parks have already been split off into their own district. Bend’s schools, of course, are also separate.

Isn’t setting priorities for the whole community important? Parks is about parks, so of course, it developed a park bond it was enthusiastic about. The same can be said for schools.

A new independent fire district may be good for firefighters and fire protection, but will it truly produce better governance of the Bend community? It’s not clear.

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