Augusta rejects county fire department
The Country Weekly News

Augusta Township council has turned thumbs down to a proposed amalgamation of Leeds and Grenville fire departments after receiving a damning analysis of the idea by its fire chief.

Council this week decided to stick with its volunteer fire department instead of embracing the single, countieswide fire department model recommended in a consultant’s report to the United Counties’ Joint Services Committee earlier this year.

In a detailed and exacting rebuttal of the consultant’s recommendations, Fire Chief Rob Bowman concluded the amalgamation actually would increase costs to most rural municipalities and lead to the closure of 10 of the 24 fire halls in Leeds and Grenville, including the one in North Augusta, thereby adding to emergency response times and to the insurance costs of homeowners.

Bowman said the study by Pomax Consulting seemed to be written from an urban, not rural, perspective, perhaps because Leeds and Grenville fire chiefs had limited input into the study.

In his 27-page examination of the Pomax study, Bowman spends a lot of time looking at the consultant’s claims that a single, countieswide fire department would save money.

In his analysis of different funding models, the fire chief concludes that amalgamation would, in fact, cost most rural municipalities more for fire services.

Bowman bases his calculations on three different models, basing the division of fire costs by the tax assessment of each municipality.

In all of his models, the only clear and constant winners are the urban municipalities of Brockville, Gananoque and Prescott. That’s because the city and two towns have higher fire department costs compared with their tax assessments. By sharing those costs with the rural municipalities, the urban centres would pay a smaller portion of the overall total, but the rural townships with their volunteer forces would pay more.

In the best-case scenario, Bowman calculates the costs for municipalities supposing amalgamation reduced the total fire budget by 20 per cent, or about $2.6 million a year.

The big winner would be Brockville, which would cut its $5.8-million fire department budget to $1.7 million, or by 70.6 per cent, when its costs are shared throughout Leeds and Grenville.

The big loser would be North Grenville, which would pay almost double the $946,599 it now budgets for fire, Bowman calculates.

In between, most of the rural municipalities would see rising costs because of their having to share the fire budgets of Brockville, Gananoque and Prescott.

Augusta, for example, would pay $33,553 more per year, or an increase of 5.8 per cent.

That’s the best-case scenario among Bowman’s calculations, but the chief doubts that the mythical 20-per-cent overall cost savings could ever be reached.

For example, the consultant’s report assumes that the honorariums for volunteer firefighters would remain the same under an amalgamated model, Bowman said.

But that’s unlikely, he added.

Volunteer firefighters are now paid at rates ranging from $8 an hour to $25.32 an hour depending on the municipality. Bowman said that it is far more likely that the pay of all volunteers would rise to the highest level, which would cost $449,487 more a year.

Bowman said the extra pay for firefighters would take a large chunk out of the $544,387 a year that Pomax estimates the departments would save by amalgamating administration.

And, Bowman suggests, the 400-plus volunteer firefighters in a single department would be ripe pickings for unions, which would increase costs.

But Bowman saves his most cutting criticism for Pomax’s suggestion that fire halls be closed if they respond to fewer than five structure fires a year.

For starters, the chief said that the stations do much more than respond to fires, including providing first response for medical calls and responding to vehicle collisions and other emergencies. A fire station is usually a focal point of the community as well, he added.

The Pomax suggestion will see the closure of the North Augusta station, along with nine others in Leeds and Grenville, he calculates.

“Closing this station and other stations within Leeds and Grenville would decrease service to residents, increase response times and put residents’ lives at risk,” Bowman said. “Most residents would see an increase in insurance costs as they would no longer be near a fire station and would not have the tanker shuttle certification that also assists in providing insurance discounts.”

Under his calculations, the consultant’s recommendations would result in the closure of 10 of the 24 stations in Leeds and Grenville, including three of the four in Leeds and the Thousand Islands and three of the four in Rideau Lakes/Westport.

Along with Augusta, Elizabethtown-Kitley, North Grenville and Brockville would see the closure of one station apiece, he calculated.


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