The Papillion and La Vista City Councils and Papillion Rural Fire Protection District board plan to vote on an agreement this week that would all but cement the Papillion fire takeover.
The 20-year agreement would start next April 1 and allow La Vista, currently served by a volunteer department, to contract with Papillion to respond to its fire and emergency calls.
The new fire protection region of Papillion, La Vista and the rural fire district would cover 58,000 residents and is expected to generate 2,600 calls per year.
“The vote next week is critical,” Papillion Mayor David Black said Friday. “If all of them approve it, that interlocal is in place, and the only contingency is the approval of everybody's budget for next year.”
La Vista proposed contracting out its fire service earlier this year amid concerns about emergency response times that were increasing as the number of available volunteers dropped.
While praising the volunteers, proponents contend that La Vista's size and emergency call volume have outgrown its volunteer force, requiring a 24/7 professional fire department that can respond to emergencies faster and with greater reliability.
“It's a tough decision, but I think it's the decision the council needs to make,” La Vista Mayor Doug Kindig said. “This is the best option available to provide safe and efficient service to our citizens.”
If the change is made, fire crews and medic units stationed at the four Papillion and La Vista firehouses should be able to reach all calls within a four-minute window. La Vista volunteers had been averaging response times of seven minutes.
La Vista officials said creating a full-time fire department of the city's own wouldn't prove cost-efficient, so the city began talks with Papillion earlier this year.
“We're already in a cooperative agreement with rural fire, and the ability to have a single operational department with two parties paying for it has just worked really well,” Black said. “We each have access to a greater department but at lesser costs. With La Vista saying 'Can we be added to that?,' that's what's really intrigued me.”
Residents and council members in both cities have raised questions about fire crews stretched thin and the possibility of taxes rising. But officials from Papillion and La Vista have recommended the merger, saying it will increase safety and allow fire costs to be split three ways.
Taxes devoted to fire protection in Papillion are actually expected to cost $6 less based on a property valued at $100,000.
Based on total property values, preliminary estimates show that the rural fire district would cover about 47 percent of total fire costs, Papillion 30 percent and La Vista 23 percent.
A financial analysis shows that the rural district would pay about $2.7 million, Papillion $1.7million and La Vista $1.6million for 2014-2015, the first full year under the new agreement. Those estimates are contingent on Papillion receiving a $2 million federal fire staffing grant.
All three entities — which would form a budget review board to weigh in on financial decisions — would assume the debt on LaVista's $5.5 million firehouse, built in 2007; $25,000 in renovations for its older station; and share future equipment or construction expenses.
To lighten the two cities' combined equipment inventory, plans are in place to sell six trucks, three medic units and two passenger vehicles. Selling the vehicles should fetch an extra $200,000.
The expansion would require Papillion to hire 12 new firefighters to augment its current 39-person crew, which would report out of Papillion's two stations, on North Adams Street and South 108th Street, and LaVista's two firehouses, on Park View Boulevard and Chandler Road.
Seventeen fire personnel would staff each shift, with anywhere from three to six employees reporting out of each firehouse.
La Vista Fire Chief Rich Uhl is expected to remain a paid LaVista employee, though his role in the new fire organization has yet to be finalized. A Papillion emergency medical manager also would be hired.
La Vista also is looking into paying volunteers on a part-time basis to staff the city's two fire stations between Oct. 1 and April 1, when Papillion steps in.
There hasn't been a decision yet on whether the expanded department would be renamed.