After months of studies and numbers-crunching, La Vista officials are recommending the city forge ahead with a plan to contract with Papillion for fire protection.
Under a proposal presented Tuesday to the city council, a beefed-up Papillion Fire Department would begin responding to all fire and medical calls in La Vista starting April 1.
The move would effectively replace the unpaid La Vista Volunteer Fire and Rescue Department with Papillion's paid, full-time force.
The presentation served only as a recommendation.
Governing bodies for La Vista, Papillion and the Papillion Rural Fire Protection District would have to approve a local services agreement for the deal to be finalized, likely sometime before city budgets are final in September.
Officials in the neighboring cities announced in March they were exploring the possibility of a fire merger to increase fire protection and response times in fast-growing La Vista.
The city's population growth and number of fire and emergency calls have far outpaced the response abilities of an all-volunteer force that struggles to get a full crew out during daytime hours, when many volunteers are at work, Police Chief Bob Lausten told council.
“I love the volunteers to death, but we've outgrown that service delivery,” Lausten said after the meeting.
Over the past 10 years, La Vista fire and emergency medical calls increased by 153 percent, all while the number of volunteer firefighters remained static and turnover was high.
Response times increased 9 percent from 2011 to 2012, to an average of 7 minutes. Papillion's paid fire department includes 41 career firefighters who cover 61 square miles in Sarpy County.
La Vista would pay roughly $1.7 million in 2014-15, the first full year of the agreement, for Papillion to staff the city's two firehouses and respond to all emergency calls. A minimum of 12 more firefighters would be hired to compensate for the increased territory. La Vista's fire budget is typically $1.25 million a year.
“The budget's obviously going to go up when you're going from volunteer to paid, but it's cheaper than a paid, part-time department” that would cost $2.5 million, or a La Vista-only paid department that would cost $4 million by 2020, Lausten said.
“This is a cost savings. Ten years down the road, this will be a significant cost savings.”
Fire and rescue costs for the new force would be split three ways instead of two, with La Vista paying 26 percent, Papillion 29 percent and the rural fire district 45 percent.
While La Vista's 51-year-old volunteer department would be all but disbanded, officials said several volunteers have applied to work for the expanded Papillion department.
La Vista Fire Chief Rich Uhl told council members at a budget hearing Monday that the transition hasn't been easy for a volunteer department that's prided itself on its professionalism and willingness to serve.
“There were some hurt feelings and disappointment, but also some excitement among some members who might have an opportunity to make a career of it,” he said. “Most volunteers have accepted it and have tried to move on.”
Uhl and about 10 members of the volunteer squad attended Tuesday's meeting but didn't speak during the presentation.
The seemingly inevitable move to a paid Papillion department has led to the departure of several volunteers, with some leaving for paid jobs in Omaha, Lincoln and Bellevue, he said.
To bridge that gap and ensure response times aren't affected, Uhl recommended La Vista transition to a part-time, paid department until Papillion starts providing coverage in April.
That plan would cost about $200,000 to pay firefighters $10 an hour to staff La Vista's two stations for three eight-hour shifts each day from October to April.
Council members asked several questions about sharing equipment and the creation of a new fire board.
Papillion City Administrator Dan Hoins said that after a year's worth of discussion, the ball is now in La Vista's court.
If the merger is completed, Papillion taxpayers shouldn't see fire taxes increase as a result, Hoins said.
“Initial indications show we can provide the service at less costs for all three entities,” he said.