Douglas County Commission gives initial approval to consolidating rural fire departments into new district

photo by: Dylan Lysen

Mike Baxter, chief of the Wakarusa Township Fire Department, explains a proposal to unify four rural fire departments during a Douglas County Commission meeting Wednesday, March 4, 2020.

Fire Chief Mike Baxter likes to refer to a proposal to consolidate four rural Douglas County fire departments by another term — unification. That’s because he believes a “consolidation” implies that services will be reduced, he said.

But the plan his Wakarusa Township Fire Department and three other rural fire departments — Clinton Township, Eudora Township and Kanwaka Township — proposed to the Douglas County government will keep all of the same services, equipment and station locations that currently exist, he said.

Instead, Baxter told the Douglas County Commission on Wednesday, the plan to consolidate may provide opportunities for all four to enhance and streamline services.

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

Background:

Douglas County Commission to consider proposal to consolidate township fire departments

The commissioners approved the initial step of the proposal on Wednesday by authorizing a resolution outlining the plans. The plan includes consolidating the township fire departments into a new county fire district to be known as Fire District No. 6.

With the initial approval of the resolution creating the new district, the county will publish the resolution for three weeks this month and then hold a public hearing on the plans on April 8. The County Commission will then consider giving final approval to the resolution sometime that month.

Later, the plan calls for merging 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 plans to consider that portion of the plan later in April, following the same public process.

When fully consolidated, the newly created fire district would cover a majority of the rural parts of the county, except 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 the Willow Springs Township. Palmyra Township and Willow Springs Township 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.

photo by: Contributed photo

This map provided by Douglas County shows in white the areas of the county that would be served by the new Fire District No. 6. The County Commission gave initial approval to create the new district during its meeting on Wednesday, March 4, by consolidating the Clinton Township, Eudora Township, Kanwaka Township and Wakarusa Township fire departments.

Baxter said an example of enhanced services is the ability to hire a new full-time firefighter to serve in the western part of the new fire district. He said the rural areas are served mostly by volunteers. But by pooling fire departments’ resources, the new district would be able to fund an additional weekday firefighter.

“That’s an enhancement in itself because we know volunteers work,” Baxter said. “That puts that individual there Monday through Friday when our volunteer numbers are lowest.”

Other benefits Baxter mentioned are creating a uniform operation among the fire departments, which would provide more safety among the volunteer firefighters and may lead to better response times, and sharing resources among fire departments to make sure all of their services are available across the district.

If approved in April, Fire District No. 6 would be funded by a new county taxing district for the residents who live within its coverage area. County Administrator Sarah Plinsky said the new district would bring in about the same amount of revenue that the townships currently take in to fund their fire departments. Plinsky said residents’ township taxes would go down if Fire District No. 6 were approved, but it’s unclear how residents’ overall tax amounts would be affected.

Plinsky said there are still many other details that need to be worked out. The county plans to put together a transition team that will consist of the involved fire chiefs and liaisons from each township in the district.

“There’s a ton more work behind the scenes that’s going to happen,” Plinsky said during the meeting Wednesday. “I know there are going to be some unanticipated things that pop up but I think we all have a commitment to work together.”

Additionally, it’s unclear how the leadership of the consolidated fire district will be constructed. Baxter told the Journal-World after the meeting that will need to be hashed out as part of the discussions to work out the details.

The commissioners thanked the fire chiefs and the township leaders for their work on the proposal.

“It’s just really neat to see folks come together and understand how we can better serve our community,” said Commission Chair Patrick Kelly. “I’m very supportive of this.”


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