By Nicole Hennessy
Fairview Park firefighters filled a whole row of seats at the city’s public library June 19, eager to learn more about the proposed Westshore fire district, but doubtful any questions would be answered.
Discussing news they’d heard recently and their impressions, two of them complained that none of the cities’ mayors were present, though one of them skeptically acknowledged he’d heard Fairview Park’s Mayor Eileen Patton wasn’t feeling well.
(Patton was, in fact, ill the day of the forum and missed several other events that week due to her illness, West Life Fairview Park reporter Kevin Kelley reports.)
Scattered throughout the downstairs space were firefighters from other cities, union representatives, residents and city fire chiefs.
Waiting for the presentation to begin, attendees read handouts provided by the forum’s organizer, the Cuyahoga Area League of Women Voters.
“It takes only nine months to grow a baby,” the fliers said. “A fire district, it seems, takes at least nine years.”
A recent $100,000 grant being used to study the possibilities and limits of a regional fire district was mentioned, but not the fact that the cities unsuccessfully applied to fund a feasibility study last year.
The Westshore Central Dispatch Center, largely the result of a $566,000 federal grant, is largely operated by each city involved in the fire district talks: Bay Village, Westlake, Fairview Park and Rocky River.
“Barely had the Central Dispatch Center ribbon been cut when the WCOG (Westshore Council of Governments) began to plan a study to determine the next steps for regionalizing fire and EMS services,” the handout continued.
Based on the findings of a private firm, Emergency Services Consulting International (ESCI), which conducted a study in 2010, the cities continue moving forward with the plan to merge fire services, or at least see what happens.
Many complain the ESCI study is already outdated, as it was completed before Lakewood pulled out of merger discussions.
Adding to an already complicated debate dealing with separate pay scales and protocols within each department is the fact that Bay Village voters in November 2012 rejected charter amendments that would have moved a regionalized fire department forward and Westlake Mayor Dennis Clough’s and Bay Village Mayor Deborah Sutherland’s insistence that it will be possible to move forward without amending city charters.
Speaking for seven minutes each, Dr. Mary Pisnar-Sweeney, an associate professor of business administration at Baldwin Wallace University, and Bernard W. Becker, director of the Center for Emergency Preparedness at the Maxine Goodman Levin College of Urban Affairs at Cleveland State University, outlined regional fire districts.
But when it came to the question and answer portion of the forum, attendees sought more concrete answers directly related to Westshore-specific plans and policies, many of which needed to be answered by administrators or officials more directly involved in decision making.
Concerns included moving forward without charter amendments, what the ability to go back to individual fire departments would be for each city and what major steps should be taken to successfully outline Westshore’s overarching strategic vision.
Both speakers pointed to running the district well and transparently and dealing with issues as they arise, elaborating on the complexities that go into successfully regionalizing a district.
Pisnar-Sweeney did admit that merging fire departments usually means fewer employees or districtwide part-time employees who don’t receive benefits – and who, as one firefighter pointed out, don’t fully comprehend the streets in each city.
To this, Becker replied, “That’s your job,” as a full-time employee, to teach them.
Overall, the audience agreed that the cities haven’t effectively communicated their interests to the residents.
Pete Matia, a Fairview Park councilman, said his take on open communications and general awareness on the district’s progress seems to be on a “need-to-know basis,” dictated by the mayors.
One of the last concerns of the evening was brought forth by Brandon Dimacchia, president of the Bay Village firefighters union, who made a joke, before stating his name, about how many times he’s been quoted.
But “I don’t mind,” he laughed, explaining, “I am providing an ambulance or two to the residents of my town where I work. If, now, that town becomes bigger and gets absorbed into four towns, the big brother, who’s Westlake in this case, has a lot of money.”
Continuing without waiting for replies, he said though Westlake has a lot of revenue coming in, it chooses not to spend that money on its fire department, and that’s why it’s involved, to try to absorb into neighboring departments, using cities like Bay as a crutch.
“I’m against this if it’s done this way,” Dimacchia continued. “As far as I’m concerned, I’m the only one asking those questions and bringing those points up,” he added. “The politicians are not.”
To have more calls in the city with the most money, while his own city, which pays the same taxes, may be underserviced or less safe as a result, is the concern he placed the most emphasis on – the ability to do his job well.
Closing the forum, the speakers were asked to summarize basic points they’d made. They suggested residents get involved in discussions, after which the attendees stood, sharing their opinions with anyone who might listen.