Monday, February 13, 2012

Amalgamate North Shore fire services to save millions: report

Amalgamate North Shore fire services to save millions: report

District of North Vancouver in-camera report suggests savings of $3.6M a year

Overlapping administration among North Shore fire services could be streamlined to save approximately $3.6 million a year according to an unreleased report commissioned by the District of North Vancouver.

Overlapping administration among North Shore fire services could be streamlined to save approximately $3.6 million a year according to an unreleased report commissioned by the District of North Vancouver.

Photograph by: North Shore News , file

NORTH Shore taxpayers could save $3.6 million a year if the community's three fire departments merged, according to a report commissioned recently by the District of North Vancouver.

The study, completed within the past two years, according to the district, concluded that the savings would come "primarily from reductions in management positions, overtime, capital costs for trucks and consolidation of specialty or support services." 

Right now, West Vancouver, the District of North Vancouver and the City of North Vancouver each has its own independent service, complete with fire chief, administrative staff and so on. The apparent redundancies have long been a contentious issue in all three municipalities but, until now, none of the three has studied the potential savings in detail.

Last year, the district spent $16 million running its fire department, or about 14 per cent of its overall operating budget. The city spent $7.8 million, or about 14 per cent, and West Vancouver spent $12.5 million, or about 16 per cent.

Given the significant differences in population and land area, it's extremely unlikely the financial benefits of a merger - if any - would be split evenly three ways. Rather, "any savings would have to be shared based on an agreed-upon formula," said district spokeswoman Jeanine Bratina, in a statement.

How the report's authors reached the $3.6-million figure is unclear; the document has not been made public, and the district has refused to release a copy to media. It would only confirm the findings, and claimed that the document had been reviewed by the chief administrative officers of all three communities. Even the report's title, authorship and cost - and even page count -remain under wraps. Pressed, Bratina refused to say why the municipality was not divulging that information.

It doesn't appear that much is going to change as a result of the report's contents, however, according to the district.
"A preliminary review suggests that many of the recommendations need to be tested and considered from a governance, labour relations and implementation cost perspective," said Bratina. "At this point, there is not unanimous consent amongst the three North Shore municipalities to consider fire services consolidation."

The district commissioned the report in the wake of a 2010 fire services review by Dugal Smith and Associates that evaluated collaboration among the departments. That earlier report, sponsored by all three municipalities, concluded that the services were already co-operating in some ways, but that there were major barriers to significant change.

West Vancouver's chief administrative officer Grant McRadu, in a report to council last year, concluded that the predicted annual cost savings from that co-operation - about $513,000 - were "likely a long-term rather than a short-term possibility."

In her comments this week, Bratina suggested the financial benefit has been limited so far. "It has been recognized that the cost savings are marginal in the context of the over $35 million dollars, or approximately $205 per resident, that is spent annually on the North Shore for fire services," she said.

Nonetheless, without agreement on amalgamation among the municipalities, "the focus remains on achieving improvements in service and cost reductions through increased co-operation and coordination between the three fire departments," said Bratina.

Reached for comment Friday, City of North Vancouver Fire Chief Barrie Penman, questioned the value of a report commissioned by just one municipality. He had not seen the document, he said, but nor had his department been consulted in any way in its creation.

"A single municipality doing an amalgamation report to me is bit different," he said. "You need a partner to dance."
The North Shore's three fire services were already working well together on an number of fronts, he said. "We train together, we recruit together ,we respond together. . . . It's working."

No one at the District of West Vancouver could be reached for comment Friday, according to a spokeswoman. The idea of amalgamation has not been without its supporters there in the past.

Coun. Michael Smith, now mayor of West Vancouver, said at the time of McRadu's 2011 report that: "If we had one central command, one chief and one bureaucracy for the North Shore, all the firefighters would be trained under the same training department. It makes so much sense that nobody can speak against it."

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