Douglas County Commission approves first step of plan to consolidate rural fire departments; tax implications aren’t yet clear

photo by: Dylan Lysen

Douglas County Commissioners Nancy Thellman, left, Patrick Kelly, center, and Michelle Derusseau, right, listen to public comment during their meeting on Wednesday, Feb. 19 2020.

The Douglas County Commission has approved the first part of a plan to combine several rural fire departments into one large fire district.

However, the taxing implications of the entire two-step plan won’t become clear until the commissioners finalize the entire plan in the coming months.

On Wednesday, County Administrator Sarah Plinsky said that’s because there are many variables in the process, which is outlined by state statute, and it won’t be clear until the county’s budgeting process takes place this summer.

“What we need to do right now is consolidate the district and then we work on the budget,” she told the Journal-World. She later added that by “the end of June, we will have better numbers of what we think the district will spend, the assessed valuation of that district, and what the (mill levy) will bring in.”

At their meeting Wednesday, the commissioners unanimously voted to approve the first part of the plan, which consolidates four township fire departments — Clinton, Eudora, Kanwaka and Wakarusa — into a new county fire district to be known as Fire District No. 6.

The second part of the county’s plan now calls for the commissioners to further merge the new fire district with the county’s Fire District No. 1, which serves the Lecompton Township, and Fire District No. 4, which serves the northern part of Marion Township. The county expects to consider that portion of the plan later this month, following the same public process.

When fully consolidated, the newly created fire district would cover the majority of the rural area of the county, except for the areas already covered by the county’s Fire District No. 2, which serves the Palmyra Township, and Fire District No. 3, which serves the Willow Springs Township. The Palmyra and Willow Springs townships are in the southeast and south-central parts of the county, respectively.

Additionally, the southern portion of Marion Township, in the southwest corner of the county, is served by an Osage County fire district, and Grant Township, located north of Lawrence, has contracted fire services through Lawrence-Douglas County Fire Medical.

The chiefs of the involved fire departments proposed the consolidation plan to the county in March, noting it would help them provide better services to their constituents. Mike Baxter, chief of the Wakarusa Township Fire Department, said at the time the consolidation would not result in any loss of services, but would streamline all of the departments’ efforts.

“We’re not removing any piece of equipment, station or personnel — nothing,” he said at the time. “We’re unifying services to get stronger as a single entity, instead of multiple entities.”

As for how the residents of the district will see their taxes change because of the consolidation, the county expects the district will use a mill levy of 5.5 mills to collect roughly the same amount of money the residents of the district currently pay to their townships for fire services. But how much revenue that mill levy would produce is not yet clear.

“We just need more time to go through (the process),” Plinsky said. “We believe we can expand service for roughly the same amount of money it is costing now.”

When asked prior to the meeting on Wednesday how much residents currently pay toward their townships for fire district services, Plinsky said it is difficult to know because the townships all have different ways of accounting for that funding, and that information was not immediately available.

However, Plinsky said the residents’ township taxes will decrease, because the townships will no longer be collecting revenue from the residents to fund fire services. She said the townships agreed to lower their taxes to offset the taxing change.

Additionally, the new fire district will have its own budget and mill levy, which means the county can lower the amount of taxes it collects if the proposed 5.5 mills is higher than expected, Plinsky said. She also noted that means the county will hold its own annual public budget hearing for the district, which will give residents the opportunity to advocate for a lower budget if they so choose.

Commissioner Nancy Thellman said in an email after the meeting that she is glad to see the fire chiefs and county staff work together on the plan, calling it a “big step in the right direction.” She also noted it will be some time before the budget and taxing implications will be clearly understood.

“The next step of the process is where we’ll have more detailed discussion about the budget — that’s just the way the statute lines this consolidation process out,” Thellman said via email. “Budget-wise, the goal is to run this consolidated fire district for the same amount of funds as are being spent now to run multiple districts.”

In other business:

• The commissioners approved an agreement to pay approximately $110,000 to Atmos Energy to move its gas lines along Route 1055 between North 1000 Road to North 1175 Road. The replacement of the gas lines is needed to make room for a county road improvement project on Route 1055, which is slated to begin in June.

• The commissioners deferred taking action on a recommendation from the Public Incentive Review Committee for the county to participate in a Neighborhood Revitalization Area to construct a mixed-use housing development at 800 Pennsylvania St.

The county, City of Lawrence and Lawrence school district all have the discretion to determine the rebate percentage and duration of the NRA for their taxing jurisdictions. Plinsky suggested the county defer its consideration until the City of Lawrence makes a decision. The City Commission was scheduled to consider the item on Tuesday, but postponed its meeting because of technical difficulties.


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Related coverage: New Fire District No. 6

March 4, 2020: Douglas County Commission gives initial approval to consolidating rural fire departments into new district

March 3, 2020: Douglas County Commission to consider proposal to consolidate township fire departments

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