Littleton Fire Protection District, one of the city's fire partners, has announced it will be severing ties with the City of Littleton and merging operations with South Metro Fire Rescue effective Jan. 1, 2019.
The fire protection district delivered a letter to Littleton City Manager Mark Relph the morning of Nov. 17, announcing it would exercise its contractual right to part ways with the city with more than a year's notice.
"I can't say I'm surprised," Relph said. "I knew they had been in talks about this. We're discussing how to move forward."
The district decided to merge with South Metro because of the district's higher level of service and shorter response times, said Keith Gardner, the president of LFPD's board of directors.
"Costs were accelerating, we vetted everything as much as possible, and we had an offer on the table," Gardner said. "The key part was that South Metro made this pitch a year ago."
By the numbers
LFPD covers 80,000 residents in Bow Mar, Columbine Valley, the area around Chatfield Reservoir, the western portion of Centennial, and a large area of unincorporated Arapahoe County west of the Littleton city limits. The district owns three fire stations and shares ownership of a fourth with the city, according to a news release. The district's stations are staffed by firefighters from Littleton Fire Rescue, which is the city's firefighting agency.
South Metro Fire Rescue is a large consolidated district that provides fire protection services to a vast area in the southeast metro area suburbs, inlcuding Parker, Lone Tree, Greenwood Village, Castle Pines and a large chunk of Centennial. Littleton recently approved an agreement to merge the city's fire dispatch services with South Metro.
LFPD will pay close to $8 million to the city of Littleton in 2017 for contracted services, according to city budget documents. The payments amount to about 28 percent of the city's fire budget. LFPD's four stations currently staff close to 170 personnel, Gardner said.
The agreement will see the mill levy used to fund fire protection for the district's residents increase from 7.678 to 9.25, Gardner said, meaning the owner of a $400,000 house would pay about $45 more in property taxes annually.
The plan still requires an element of voter approval: South Metro Fire Rescue will conduct an election in May 2018, asking voters in the LFPD to approve South Metro to expand its jurisdictional boundaries to their area. If voters rejected the boundary extension, Gardner said, South Metro would ask again in the Nov. 2018 election. If voters rejected the effort a second time, Gardner said, the agreement would go into effect in January 2019, and South Metro trucks would begin responding to calls in the LFPD coverage area, and LFPD would pay the difference in mill levies out of their reserves. South Metro would then go before voters a third time in May 2019 asking for approval of the boundary change.
"We're confident that citizens will respond to the opportunity to increase the level of service and cut response times," Gardner said.
Merger talk not new
Merger talk among the city's fire partners has been brewing for a long time.
The Littleton Firefighters Association, the union that covers firefighters in the city's department as well as its partner districts, has expressed its support of a wholesale merger of the city's fire department and partners with South Metro. Another of the city's partners, Cunningham Fire Protection District, which covers a swath of the southeast metro suburbs, announced earlier this year it would sever ties with the city in the midst of the dispute over whether to merge the city's fire dispatch services with South Metro.
After Littleton city council initially rejected the dispatch merger proposal, Littleton Fire Protection District and Highlands Ranch Metro District, the city's other partner, threatened to cut ties with the city unless the dispatch merger was approved. Council approved the dispatch merger in October.
Highlands Ranch Metro District is evaluating a merger proposal from South Metro, said Terry Nolan, the district's general manager.
"We've been considering alternatives for a long time," said Nolan, "The costs of providing fire protection are creeping up."
The City of Littleton has been evaluating the possibility of a merger with South Metro for more than a year, Relph said, although he added that an effort to work with consultants to prepare a report on the effects of a merger has been stalled for several months.
The union was among the largest donors to several city council candidates, and endorsed four candidates, three of whom won seats on council: Kyle Schlachter, Karina Elrod and Patrick Driscoll.
Council to evaluate options
The new council, which will be sworn in on Nov. 21, will evaluate the impact of the departure of LFPD as one of its first actions, Relph said. Relph will address council at the Nov. 28 study session, and city council will meet with LFPD and Highlands Ranch Metro District on Nov. 30 to discuss the impacts of the separation.
Relph said the city will examine numerous responses, including whether this would be a good time for the wholesale merger to go ahead.
"If we do want to talk to South Metro about a merger, we could do that hand-in-hand with Littleton Fire Protection District and Highlands Ranch," Relph said.
Gardner said he would happily work with Littleton and Highlands Ranch on examining a joint wholesale merger.
Gardner said the timing of the announcement with the seating of the new council has nothing to do with LFPD's decision.
"We had to announce by the end of the year if we wanted to get this going by 2019," Gardner said. "We didn't play any politics at all. We didn't want to create divergence in the election."
The merger is "a significant step forward," Joel Heinemann, president of the Littleton Firefighters Association, said in an email. "Over the last year, the LFPD board has done incredible due diligence to come to this decision, and the Littleton firefighters are supportive of this."
South Metro has high hopes for the merger, said South Metro Fire Chief Bob Baker.
"Bringing (LFPD) into our family here at South Metro will benefit all involved - including the citizens, community and the firefighters," Baker said in an email. "We very much look forward to what the future holds and see this as an opportunity to work together to provide the best possible care to our communities in the most economical and sustainable way as possible."
Relph and Gardner agreed that there are many issues yet to be hammered out: the disposition of the nearly 170 personnel and city-owned fire equipment at the LFPD stations will be discussed at the Nov. 30 meeting. Gardner said he is hopeful that South Metro will absorb many of the personnel.
"This conversation will go on for a long time," Relph said. "I'm responsible for protecting the interests of the City of Littleton. I need to see all options and do a detailed analysis."