Whitehouse Seeks To Municipalize Fire Department
By KELLY GOOCH
WHITEHOUSE -- Whitehouse officials hope to increase transparency for taxpayers by turning the city's volunteer fire department into a municipal department.
Assistant City Manager Kevin Huckabee made the proposal at an Emergency Services District No. 2 board meeting Monday night. He asked for $135,000 from the services district along with the use of district equipment.
The volunteer fire department in the past has requested $269,000 from the emergency services district.
Board President Mitch Henderson said the proposal means the city would upgrade to meet State Commission on Fire Protection guidelines, which require a higher standard of training and certification. Volunteer firefighters are not required to be regulated by the commission, but professional firefighters are.
"Cities can operate in a professional department and volunteer department," he said. "They would continue a volunteer wing and encourage current volunteer members to come under their department. They hope to expand the number of people utilizing station No. 2. It was built and has never been functional. It has equipment but is not manned. They hope to man it and utilize more volunteers."
Under its proposal, the city would have two paid firemen at each station working 10-hour days inside the city. The Emergency Services District No. 2 would reimburse for professional firefighters working outside the city, Huckabee said.
He said the city also would like to compensate volunteers at least $600 a year on a quarterly basis.
However, the move to a municipal department would not require a tax increase for residents.
In fact, with help from the Emergency Services District No. 2, the city would be able to trim more than $50,000 from the budget the fire department originally presented, Huckabee said. The emergency services district board, through reimbursement, employs 33 firefighters -- three on day shift in 11 departments -- because volunteers are not available during the day because of their outside jobs.
"At first glance, by combining (municipal and volunteer), it would appear they're taking a larger share of the financial responsibility. It's probably more equitable for people who live outside city limits," Henderson said.
But Fire Chief Ronny Fite said he has concerns about becoming a municipal department.
He said the problem the department had when firefighters were employees of the city before is it didn't have enough people to fill shifts during the day.
"We only have two commission-certified people in the department who can work. We would rather fill the shift with people we know," he said.
Currently, the department has about 35 volunteers, and five firefighters are on its compensated roster, two of which are the full-time professional firefighters.
Whitehouse resident Steve Richardson said he believes the department should be a municipal department.
"I think if we had more full-time (firefighters), the response time to fires and accidents would be quicker and save money," he said.
Another resident, Mike Ray, said he is not against the move and doesn't see that it would have a big effect on him, while resident Trevor Bates said he could see both sides of the issue.
"It's good to put money into something that helps everybody...," Bates said. "I (also) think (firefighters) should get paid if they're risking their life."
Henderson said each board member received a copy of the city's proposal, and another meeting will be scheduled to discuss the issue further.
"The only way we would consider it is if after analysis it shows we're getting an improved level of fire service and professionalism and hopefully at a better price ...," he said. "Our primary focus is the benefit of our taxpayers."