Does it make sense to merge the city of Walla Walla's fire department with Rural Fire District 4?
Fire District 4, which serves the area surrounding the Walla Walla city limits, isn't all that rural anymore as several housing developments have been put in over the past 20 years. Given that, the focus of the two departments is similar.
In addition, state law was changed in 2004 to allow fire departments to merge under a Regional Fire Authority created by a vote of the people. Prior to this, a merger of city and rural fire departments was far more complicated as a variety of issues such as transferring assets had to be considered.
Given all that -- plus the lousy economy that has been chipping away at local governments -- it simply makes sense to at least consider merging these two fire departments that already serve the same population through mutual aid agreements.
Figuring this all out will take some time as a thoughtful look at the positives and negatives have to be considered. Interim city Fire Chief Bob Yancey said a vote on forming the RFA would have to be at least 18 months away.
A wrinkle in all this, however, is the city's need to hire new police and fire chiefs within the year.
At this week's City Council meeting, Council member Shane Laib questioned the city spending $48,000 to recruit candidates to fill the two chief positions. He wondered whether a fire department merger would impact applicants. He also wondered whether this might be a time to consider merging local law enforcement -- city police and the county Sheriff's Office.
Laib, who cast the only vote against hiring the consultant to recruit candidates, makes some very good points. Merging fire services must be seriously considered and merging law enforcement, at the least, should be discussed.
But it would be a mistake to put hiring new chiefs on hold until a decision is made. The Council made the right call to move forward.
The applicants for these two important positions should, of course, be informed of the merger talks. We doubt that would have much impact on the caliber of applicants as they should all be bright enough to understand that consolidation of services would only be done to improve fire fighting and law enforcement efforts.
Hiring chiefs and consolidating services are, ultimately, different discussions.
Still, Laib is on the money -- literally -- in pushing the city to seriously consider merging fire departments and at least look at the possibility of consolidating law enforcement services.