Scottsdale needed to spend $6.4 million on its transition to a municipal fire department like it needed the proverbial hole in the head, but with the withdrawal of the private provider Rural/Metro Corp. in 14 months, the expense must be undertaken.
Taxpayers should understand three things about the transition:
• The proposed 2004-05 city budget for the new city-run fire department does not include revenue from the proposed one-tenth-cent city sales tax increase voters are being asked to approve May 18. Voters should not be misled; approving the sales tax hike is not necessary for the city to afford the new fire department.
• Expect that Rural/Metro’s efficient staffing of at least five firefighters per call — three firefighters on a fire engine plus two more firefighters (who are trained paramedics) on an accompanying ambulance — will have to be replaced by four city firefighters on that engine. After its fire-service contract expires, Rural/Metro will still be running the ambulance service for Scottsdale, and it will certainly staff ambulances only with non-firefighter paramedics. Four firefighters per engine will mean more firefighters on the payroll, raising the city’s costs.
• More costs — in the tens of millions — are looming ahead for the city, including the installation of "automatic aid," a Phoenix-based system of dispatch used by 16 other Valley communities, and for pensions for firefighters retiring after 20 years, which Rural/Metro did not offer.
City leaders have been getting advice from a number of sources, expectedly from Rural/Metro but also from other municipal departments. What Scottsdale officials should remember, however, is that their model is not the public sector.
It is Rural/Metro’s efficiency and innovation that benefited Scottsdale and gave it an international reputation, not a comparatively open-checkbook city fire department that relies on the political process. It was the private Rural/Metro that had to maximize service while minimizing expenses so as to realize the tiny 2.6 percent profit allowed under its expiring contract — and it was responsible for any cost overruns, an obligation shared by no city-run fire department we know of.
So city leaders are encouraged to look primarily to Rural/Metro’s model — not other city-run departments’ — in fashioning the default city-run department. It’s not the department Scottsdale voters chose last May, but it is the one they now must have.