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Taking next steps in services consolidation

Consultant: Look at combining top fire administrators

STERLING – City Manager Scott Shumard favors consolidating the top four fire administrative service positions into three, as suggested by a consultant hired by the city to determine ways Sterling and Rock Falls can join forces to save money.

Robert Finn of Texas-based Matrix Consultant group shared the results of his study with the Sterling City Council, which hired him to determine whether money could be saved by combining both fire departments and CGH Emergency Medical Services.

Rock Falls City Administrator Robbin Blackert will present Finn’s suggestions to her council tonight.

Combining the two fire departments and EMS services would not save money, because all three departments still need the same number of boots-on-the-ground personnel, Finn found.

Consolidating the administrative jobs into one chief and two deputy chiefs would be more economical, though, and more efficient, he said.

Sterling and Rock Falls have been sharing a chief for 2 years; that agreement ends next month. Before that, each department had its own chief.

If they were to permanently consolidate duties, the chief would be responsible for working with the council and overseeing administrative duties, while one deputy chief would oversee fire prevention and inspection for both towns, and the other would oversee operations – the actual on scene firefighting duties – for both towns.

It would save $104,351.

Shumard hopes to make that recommendation a reality.

“The study recommended consolidating at least the top three positions,” Shumard said. “That was where most of the savings would come from. It would also bring about the most benefits.”

For example, “if one deputy chief was in charge of prevention for both communities, [it would] help standardize prevention projects,” Shumard said. “Better efficiencies come from breaking apart duties and letting those two become more specialized.”

Sharing a chief not only would cut salary costs, but also would save benefit and pension costs, he said.

Finn also suggests a number of other ways to save money: consolidate and create one fire inspection program, standardize operating procedures, and create a plan for buying, replacing and sharing equipment.

Were the departments to combine, each station should be equally staffed with at least three people, Finn said. Right now, the Sterling and Rock Falls main stations have three people at each, but the Sterling substation has only two.

Bringing staffing up to the three-person minimum would increase costs $168,979 a year, Finn determined.

Shumard wants residents’ feedback before proceeding further.

“It’s probably worth a community conversation to figure out ... would people be willing to pay the extra, city and rural, to increase the staffing in the departments so there’s more people available?” he said. “Is that something that people want, or is current staffing OK, and are people fine with the way the situation is?

“Do they just want us to concentrate on saving additional money by consolidating at the top and improving services from that standpoint? That’s part of a community conversation.”

When Blackert presents Finn’s findings to her council tonight, she will make her own recommendations, focusing on “what we’re already doing right and how we can build on that,” she said.

“What the two cities are doing already is exactly the right path, and we just need to stay on that path, as far as sharing of Deputy Chief [Gary Cook] and consolidating administration,” she said.

Before any attempt at consolidation can be made, Finn pointed out, obstacles must be overcome. Although Rock Falls participated in the study by providing documents and information, the project was driven by Sterling.

Rock Falls views its fire department as part of its community identity, Finn found.

“With that strong sense of community on the Rock Falls side, there’s some reluctance to change the way it operates today,” he said. “That’s a community-by-community issue.

“There is no study in the world that’s going to change a community’s sense of identity.”

That’s another reason the fire departments should focus on the efficiencies that would come from combining the top positions, he said.

“The only functional things that would benefit are administrative,” he said. “Since they rely on each other, [getting] policy aligned, [they could] function as one agency but neither would give up local identity of losing a fire department.”

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