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Fire dispatch merger approved

Vote ends months of controversy


Littleton City Council voted 6-1 to merge the city's fire dispatch services with South Metro Fire Rescue, ending months of wrangling.

Councilmember Doug Clark remained steadfast in his opposition Oct. 17, having cast votes against the proposal at every step.

The city initially shot down the proposal in June, only to have the city's fire partners - outside districts that contract with Littleton for fire protection - demand mediation to reconsider the proposal. If not, they said, they would terminate their contracts with Littleton on Nov. 1.

The city's fire partners - the Highlands Ranch Metro District and the Littleton Fire Protection District, which includes west Centennial, among other areas - said merging Littleton's city-maintained dispatched services with South Metro, a larger consolidated district covering a vast swath of the southeast metro area, would result in lower costs and better service. Under South Metro's proposal, dispatched calls would be billed at $58.46 per call, about $25 less per call than Littleton currently charges, resulting in a savings of about $400,000 per year for the city.

South Metro would also provide better conditions to dispatchers, the partners say, with an economy of scale that they say would allow for faster dispatch and more relief time for dispatchers on duty.

The city and the fire partners met with mediator John Hayes in September, who recommended that the city go ahead with the dispatch merger, but said the partners should pay South Metro directly for dispatch services, rather than using Littleton as a middleman for dispatch fees.

This has the benefit of reducing revenue that would push against the city's TABOR cap, said city attorney Steve Kemp.

The merger also has the benefit of reducing the city's liability, Kemp said. If the merger didn't go through, he said, a caller could potentially sue the city if injuries were exacerbated by delayed response time.

"We would put on a defense," Kemp said. "We would call dispatch experts from across the United States to work with the city. I've used professional experts like this. I've also paid them $50,000 to $100,000 just to show up."

Clark has expressed his opposition to the plan many times. He called the move premature while the city worked with consultants to explore the possibility of a wholesale merger of the fire department with another agency, likely South Metro - an idea supported by the firefighters union.

Clark called the partners' demand for mediation an ultimatum designed to force the city's hand.

"We are being forced into the first step of a merger with South Metro," Clark said. "Being forced into a decision by the partners we provide service to, immediately before an election with a new council, I don't think is representing the interests of the citizens of Littleton."

Other councilmembers were vigorous in their defense of the idea.

"This is not the first step of a merger," District 1 Councilmember Bill Hopping said. "We can address things independently."

Hopping said South Metro's proposal made more sense than contracting with any other area agency because they use compatible software with Littleton's system and share a large border with Littleton's service area. Hopping also pointed to South Metro's larger staff and high accreditation rating, and the potential for savings as boons.

Hopping also fired back after Councilmember Peggy Cole asked if voting on the measure could be postponed until the new council was sworn in after the election.

"To pass this off to a new council is a cheap political trick," Hopping said. "We've worked to get everything possible to learn everything we can about this. You're not going to get a group of people who have spent more time, energy and - I sparingly use the word intellect when I'm in the group - trying to understand the issues on both sides."

Councilmember Debbie Brinkman, who is the fire department's liaison to council, had a list of reasons she supported the proposal: the savings to the city in a time of budget concerns, the reduced liability and the higher standards of South Metro among them.

The fire partners were not trying to strongarm Littleton into a merger, Brinkman said.

"It's not fair to accuse them of throwing down threats and trying to force us into decisions," Brinkman said. "They're representing their communities. They're conscientious of their fiduciary and safety responsibilities."

Mayor Bruce Beckman voted for the proposal, but not without criticism for how the process was handled. Specifically, Beckman took umbrage at a revelation that came during a public hearing in June, when a dispatcher told council that Littleton Fire Rescue's Chief Chris Armstrong had halted hiring new dispatchers in January in order to hold the staff at a size that could be absorbed by South Metro if the merger went through. Beckman said the council had approved staffing levels last year that were not being met.

"It was really devastating to find out things like we believed we had approved a budget and approved staffing, and we found out months into it that a decision had been made independently not to do what we agreed," Beckman said. "It hurt the whole thing. I assume I'm being treated fairly and honestly, and to find out that perhaps there's some other information, very troubling. I couldn't vote yes unless I had factual information."

Beckman, who said he worked on accreditation programs for the city's police department during his tenure there, said the issue had begun to run on emotion.

"One of those criticisms I'm so disappointed in is, if you don't vote for this, you're not interested in public safety," Beckman said. "Nothing could be further from the truth. This is a policy board, and we have to figure out what's appropriate for the community, and how we provide that and staff and resource it."


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