The fire chiefs and other leaders in the cities had discussed the possibility of creating a unified fire district to serve the locales, similar to the North View and Weber fire districts, which each serve multiple Weber County locales. Now plans call for formulation of an interlocal agreement that would keep the Riverdale and South Ogden fire departments intact but allow for coverage in each city by either department.
"This is way outside the box. We're in unknown territory," Cameron West, the South Ogden fire chief, said at Tuesday's South Ogden City Council meeting, when the plans came up for discussion. "But we work well together. We think this is going to work."
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South Ogden officials on Tuesday offered words of support for the proposal, which now will go to legal representatives from the two cities for formulation of a tentative agreement. The topic came up at the April 2 Riverdale City Council meeting and Jared Sholly, the Riverdale fire chief, said leaders in that city also expressed support for the plans.
Broadly, the aim of the initiative — focus of talks dating back two-and-a-half years, according to Sholly — has been to come up with a way to improve fire service, reduce response times and keep costs in check. As is, nine fire departments operate out of 22 stations spread across Weber County, and some argue that consolidation would result in more efficient, cost-effective service.
Per the agreement, which still needs to be hammered out and approved by the South Ogden and Riverdale city councils, the closest fire crew would be dispatched to fire and ambulance calls coming from the two cities. The border between the abutting cities would go away, as Sholly describes it. The plan wouldn't require new taxes or create new costs, but, on the contrary, should improve service, in part through quicker response times.
Significantly, the arrangement, as envisioned, would also allow for staffing of ladder trucks with three firefighters, not just two, as now happens. That's a much safer arrangement for firefighters, a big driver in the negotiations. Moreover, Sholly said, the two departments could shift and move around staffing and equipment, as needed.
Washington Terrace, which abuts both Riverdale and South Ogden, had taken part in earlier talks about consolidating into a three-city fire district. Officials from the city, which has the smallest fire department of the three, said late last year that they had dropped out of the talks, however, due in part to the potential cost consolidation would have entailed.
Instead, Washington Terrace leaders are now mulling a property tax increase for 2020 to increase the Washington Terrace Fire Department budget to bolster staffing and raise pay to minimize turnover. The Washington Terrace Fire Department is considered a volunteer crew, though firefighters receive a stipend.
"Washington Terrace evaluated the creation of a fire district with Riverdale and South Ogden," the city said an April newsletter sent to residents. "However, careful fiscal analysis revealed a need to resolve the problems in house at this time rather than join forces with another department. In the future we may reconsider joining in a fire district."
As is, the varied fire departments across Weber County have mutual aid agreements, committing to help one another as needed. However, the ability to offer help when the need arises can be curtailed if fire departments are handling calls of their own, a deficiency the proposed interlocal agreement aims to overcome.
West would like to see the interlocal agreement go into effect on July 1, the first day of the 2019-2010 fiscal year for Utah cities. Plans would call for a one-year trial period. "Then we can evaluate, figure out, hey, is this working?" West said.
Matt Dixon, the South Ogden city manager, said the two cities' unique arrangement, if ultimately approved, could set a precedent and "show other agencies what can be done."
The earlier fire district proposal, focus of a meeting between representatives from the three cities last summer, would have entailed creation of a new, independent taxing entity. Washington Terrace residents would likely have experienced a jump in property taxes compared to what they currently pay to operate the existing department. That factored, at least in part, in the decision of leaders from the city to withdraw from consolidation talks.
The Weber Fire District serves Farr West, Hooper, Huntsville, Marriott-Slaterville, West Haven and unincorporated Weber County. The North View Fire District serves North Ogden, Pleasant View and Harrisville.