By Sue Botos
Plans for a regional fire district have sparked controversy in Westshore cities, but the proposal will gradually move along thanks to a $100,000 local government grant from the state of Ohio.
During a recent City Council session, Rocky River Mayor Pam Bobst announced that the grant will be earmarked for the hiring of a project director who will have the responsibility of wading through a several-hundred-page report, detailing more than 76 recommendations made as the result of a feasibility study conducted over the past several years. Bobst said these recommendations run the gamut from purchasing operations to training.
Legislation for Westshore cities is now being prepared by Bay Village law Director Gary Ebert. Bay Village Mayor Debbie Sutherland headed the feasibility phase of the project. Westlake Mayor Dennis Clough will spearhead this second part.
A $100,000 grant from Efficient Government Now funded the study, which made recommendations for the seven cities originally exploring the possibility of combining fire services. Currently, Bay Village, Fairview Park, Westlake and Rocky River are on board with the project. Lakewood, North Ridgeville and North Olmsted dropped out. North Olmsted Mayor Kevin Kennedy indicated previously there was a lack of potential cost savings for the city, and that North Olmsted already had its own dispatch center.
Bobst said that Rocky River is saving about $700,000 by sharing a dispatch center at St. John Medical Center with Bay Village, Fairview Park and Westlake. “We’re already doing a lot of things to save costs. We want to see meaningful progress to expand and enhance (fire services).”
While Bobst said that a totally consolidated district is not a necessity, it was important to “be part of the conversation” with the other mayors and fire departments. “What can we do today to improve? We want to be at the table and part of the discussion,” she stated.
Bay Village officials attempted to move the consolidation process along, they said, by placing a charter amendment on the November 2012 ballot that would have removed the city’s police and fire chiefs from the civil service system. Voters turned down the proposal, echoing concerns by firefighters and police officers over city government interference and the removal of civil service protection.
Firefighters have also expressed concerns over questions regarding number of employees, and part-time employees who may not be familiar with streets in each city.
Cuyahoga County Executive Ed FitzGerald has made his own bid to encourage regionalization by proposing that county dispatch centers be reduced from the current 45 to four. Ohio House Bill 360, which went into effect in 2012, guarantees that the number of dispatch centers in the state receiving emergency funds will decrease by 2018. The center at St. John Medical Center, in operation since 2006, receives about $566,000 yearly.
While there is no guarantee there will be a consolidated district, Bobst said that it’s important to keep the conversation going. “This is a parallel process. We’re taking steps toward enhancing fire services and expanding them by cooperation with surrounding departments. Will it ultimately end up as a designated fire district? Only time will tell.”