By CHRISTIN COYNE
WILLOW PARK – The Willow Park City Council approved the creation of a committee Tuesday night to form a plan for merging Willow Park Fire/Rescue Department with the city.
The fire department is currently a non-profit governed by a board of directors and a city-appointed fire chief/marshal and receives more than 90 percent of its annual budget from the city.
Council member Bernard Suchocki and Fire Chief Brent Sauble told the council that making the fire department a city department is expected to save the city more than $11,000, provide better and more cost effective benefits and help retain better trained firefighters.
They hope to present a detailed plan to the city council in September for approval and complete the transition by Jan. 1, Suchocki said.
Paid firefighters were first hired in 2005 and 24/7 paid firefighter coverage began in 2008.
According to information provided to the council, about 8 percent of the department’s current $616,000 budget is provided by county funding and donations. The city provides the rest.
Currently, the fire department has eight full-time staff, including two administrative personnel who work during normal business hours and three pairs of firefighters who work 24-hour shifts, covering calls with funding provided by the city. Three traditional volunteers who respond to at least five calls a month and 13 reserve firefighters – firefighters who work for other cities, live outside the city limits and work floater shifts to supplement paid staff – assist with fire coverage in the city, as well.
With a larger staff, budget and call volume, they’ve outgrown the non-profit model, Sauble told the council.
As a non-profit, they cannot purchase health insurance as a larger group like the city can and are struggling to retain trained employees over time without competitive health insurance and retirement offerings.
Many firefighters’ wives supplement their husbands’ health insurance with dental or other coverage, Sauble told the council, who said city employees can get better benefits at a lower cost to the city.
As a part of the city, the fire department would have a streamlined chain of command, with elected officials responsible for public safety, and have access to additional grants because of the stable funding source, according to Sauble.
Financially, the department is healthy and the fire department’s debt service is already being paid with city funding, the council was told.
The fire department’s board of directors also wants to the organization to become a part of the city, Sauble said.