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Fire district mergers picking up steam

Much to do with less than a year until integration

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The clock is ticking.

The new year means Littleton is now less than a year away from the departure of its two fire partners — the districts that contract with the city for fire protection — which will officially merge with South Metro Fire Rescue starting Jan. 1, 2019.

Littleton City Council has announced it will seek to join forces with South Metro, a large consolidated district that already covers much of the south metro area, rather than allow Littleton Fire Rescue, the city’s firefighting force, to hang on as a much-reduced stand-alone district.

The nature of that consolidation is yet to be worked out, however. The city’s fire partners, Highlands Ranch Metro District and Littleton Fire Protection District, which cover areas surrounding the city proper, are slated to fully unify with South Metro. Voters in the districts will participate in a special election on May 8 to decide whether to allow South Metro to expand its boundaries to cover them.

Unification will go forward regardless of the outcome of the votes, though South Metro plans to keep holding elections in the hopes of passage if the initial bid fails.

The City of Littleton, though, will likely start off with South Metro on different footing.

“Currently, we’re thinking that we’ll start by contracting for service with South Metro,” said Littleton Mayor Debbie Brinkman. “There has been some chatter coming from staff about going for a full unification, and going before the voters as early as November. Unless I hear a compelling reason, I suggest we work under a contract, ideally less than three years or around a year, in order to stabilize everything and make sure the community is ready for the larger vote.”

South Metro Fire Chief Bob Baker said the idea of a short-term contract isn’t ideal.

“It wouldn’t have to be long-term, but we’re not very interested in a one-year contract for service,” Baker said. “You’re having to employ people to cover an area. If that contract’s not renewed, you have the difficulty of what to do with the employees. We would really prefer to just fully cover Littleton.”

Baker said his staff and attorneys are drafting a memorandum of understanding to present to Littleton’s city council, which he anticipates will be presented to Littleton City Council in early March.

Money matters

In the meantime, Brinkman said, city staff will be conducting a financial analysis to determine the difference in costs to homeowners once South Metro takes over firefighting in Littleton.

Currently, Littleton homeowners pay a mill levy of 6.662, which covers fire protection and a host of other services. South Metro’s rate for coverage is 9.25 mills.

Brinkman said it’s not yet clear how much funding will be freed up by no longer having to do administrative duties and maintain fire equipment, but she recognizes that a fee increase is likely.

“We don’t know yet where that will be burdened,” Brinkman said. “The smart people who look at spreadsheets are better at understanding how these numbers fall into place. We need to look at every scenario, then we’ll need to talk to the community.”

Brinkman said she wanted to dispel rumors she’s heard.

“We are not going to drain our reserves to pay for this,” Brinkman said. “That money is for an emergency. It’s just not on the table.”

Stating their case

Meanwhile, voters in Littleton Fire Protection District — which includes west Centennial, among other areas — and Highlands Ranch Metro District have received mailers from South Metro, making the case for full consolidation.

The mailer, signed by Baker and South Metro Fire Rescue Board Chair Dr. Laura Simon, touts benefits of a full inclusion: “Improved service opportunities, including response times, construction and/or relocation of fire stations in the Littleton Fire Protection District, and prevention/education services.”

The firefighters in the partner districts are largely looking forward to joining South Metro, said Joel Heinemann, president of the Littleton firefighters’ union.

“We’ve been in talks about this for years,” Heinemann said. “We feel we’ll be getting good contracts and improved working conditions and support. At the end of the day this is really about wanting to provide a better service to people.”

Heinemann said he anticipates that firefighters will be at the forefront of making the case for unification to voters.

Looking ahead

Highlands Ranch Metro District General Manager Terry Nolan also plans on interacting with the community ahead of the vote, but said he’s not planning on encouraging people to vote one way or another.

“I’ll be going on the road to anyone who wants to listen and talk about it starting this month,” Nolan said. “But getting out the vote isn’t the function of the metro district. We’ll be doing informative presentations.”

Nolan said that Highlands Ranch homeowners currently pay a mill levy of 18.205, which will drop by 7 when they sever ties with Littleton, but that South Metro’s rate of 9.25 makes for a net gain of 2.25 mills — or about $6.75 more per month on a house valued at $500,000.

Residents of the Littleton Fire Protection District currently pay 7.67 mills. Representatives of LFPD could not immediately be reached for comment.

Baker said he’s hopeful about the future of the unifications. He said Cunningham Fire Protection District, which cut ties with Littleton last year to merge with South Metro, was officially unified on Jan. 1, and that the process went well.

“I’m very encouraged with what I’ve been hearing from the Cunningham folks,” Baker said. “The residents of the district never experienced any interruption in service, and the firefighters are integrating well. I’m looking forward to serving Littleton as well, and I hope they come to the conclusion that full unification is the best option.”

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