March 9, 2019 — Siuslaw Valley Fire and Rescue (SVFR) and Western Lane Ambulance District (WLAD) voted to move forward with a resolution to start the process for creating the new Western Lane Fire and EMS Authority (WLFEA), an organization that will employ administrative personnel from SVFR and WLAD, while also allowing both boards to work more closely together.
“I want everyone to understand that this doesn’t create a third entity,” Interim Chief Director Steve Abel said about the resolution. “All this does, should it be approved, is gives us direction to go down that path. We have to create the ins and outs of what that agency will be doing, and then it would have to be adopted. It’s going to take three to four months, and we should be able to get this started by July 1, which makes the most sense. It’s the beginning of the fiscal year.”
WLAD Board President Rick Yecny, who presented the resolution to both boards in a joint meeting on March 7, described the reason for WLFEA.
“The concept is to give overall management to both districts,” he said. “Under the proposal, the third entity, which would be a non-taxing entity, would have two board members from each board sit on the committee. If there was ever a tie vote, the full boards would convene with all 10 board members to make a decision. The idea, too, is that all three boards would meet at the same time, which would cut all the meetings down to 12. Right now, we have 24 if we meet separately. We would actually have fewer meetings.”
WLFEA would employ the fire chief, two operations chiefs from each district and four administrative staff making up 3.5 full-time equivalent. It would be the end result of/next steps in the intergovernmental agreement (IGA) SVFR and WLAD already have in place to share an administration.
“The committee thought it would really accomplish having both boards with equal input and authority over the chief and establishes a foundation for any further consolidation of functions that we might want to take opportunity of the combine and consolidate functions into a third entity.” Yecny said.
WLAD Director Larry Farnsworth clarified that the creation of WLFEA did not mean the two districts would consolidate completely.
“It’s not a merger,” he said. “It may never be a merger. It doesn’t need to be a merger for us to realize a lot of the synergy that’s before us. So, we can speak with one voice and we can give better direction to the chief. I’m sure the chief would appreciate having a single voice to direct his work and the work of his staff.”
SVFR Director John Carnahan, who had voiced opposition to a prospective third entity in the Feb. 20 SVFR meeting, wanted to set forth a clear goal for WLFEA.
“Initially when we started this IGA, it was to save money, and that’s what it was sold as,” he said. “It hasn’t saved any money at all. As a matter of fact, it costs money. And we realize that now. So, what we really need to prove is it really more efficient. And in my mind, that’s the thing we have to prove — that it’s more efficient than it was before. I think this is a big step.”
SVFR Board President Ron Greene pointed out that while the IGA did not save money, it created a smoother operation overall.
“We keep throwing around the buzzword ‘synergy,’ the value of one team working together,” he said. “Those things are very difficult to quantify. The primary objective is to deliver quality services to the citizens and taxpayers. From the board perspective, a citizen’s perspective and my perspective, what we’re offering is a better-quality product. When there’s a fire call, Chief Abel says to Chief (Matt) House, ‘Do you want to take this one?’ He’s an EMT with fire background. There’s just synergy and experience that we can leverage together that creates a better service for the taxpayers.”
Since the majority of services have already been combined through cross training, team work and financials, “It’s almost like the boards are the last piece.” Yecny said.
Farnsworth agreed, saying, “Instead of saying ‘cost saving,’ we’re spending our money better and getting more bang for our buck. These are growing organizations and we’re doing things so much better than we did before. It’s been a growing realization to all of us on how we’re maturing as an organization.”
He added that he hoped that WLFEA would help with the financials overall, which are complicated from the shared costs from both organizations.
“I don’t want to speak for my fellow directors on this side, but we’ve always been willing to look at paying our fair share, whatever that might be,” Farnsworth said. “At the same time, we recognize that the fire district is housing the business office. So, there are certainly expenses there on your side. There are expenses for utilities, for the chief’s vehicle, for office equipment supplies. When our operations chief is working as the duty chief, we’re not cross-billing about that. We could get ridiculous about trying to micromanage that number.”
SVFR Director Ned Hickson agreed.
“The financial transparency is going to simplify being able to look at exactly where the money is going. That was important to me,” he said. “It allows us some flexibility in the future as we grow and change, and as the challenges that we face change.”
Some of the growth of WLFEA could come from upriver communities, such as the Mapleton Fire District, though Farnsworth was quick to point out that the boards are not attempting to absorb the upriver districts into SVFR.
“I don’t want it read by any person that we’re seeking that affiliation,” he said. “I hope that this is operating so well that it’s attractive, and if they wanted to approach us to participate, we’d be open to that concept. We want to support those departments like we are already with training and equipment and expertise. The realities of operating a smaller department is challenging when you’re dealing with mostly volunteer personnel. If they have issues with budgeting or payroll or supply acquisition, it would be nice if we had an operation that was attractive. If they wanted to approach us, this third entity would be a vehicle.”
And while the boards touted the financial and growth benefits of WLFEA, one of the most compelling reasons was the mere fact that the boards would be allowed to work together in the same meeting.
“I just want to say, I love these joint meetings,” Yecny said. “I think we work well together and having transparency and these meetings together, to me our staff and volunteers are working in the background. I’m excited about this, I really am. I look forward to a new era here.”
The resolution passed unanimously by the WLAD board, and was a 4-1 vote on the SVFR side, with Carnahan dissenting. However, he said he was willing to take steps to test the process after the resolution was passed.
“Because we’re looking at this third entity, and we’ve had joint meetings before, what about April, May and June’s meeting try meeting together?” Carnahan suggested. “Would that be something you would be open to?”
Members from both boards agreed.
For more information on SVFR and WLAD, visit svfr.org and www.westernlaneambulance.com.