A look at the details of Littleton's fire-inclusion plan

An overview of Littleton's years-long process to merge it's local fire department with the South Metro Fire Protection district, published in the Littleton Independent.

Voters to decide whether city becomes full member of South Metro Fire

October 1, 2018

Littleton voters will decide this fall whether to include the city within the boundaries of South Metro Fire Rescue, among the more significant decisions the city's voters have faced in recent years.

But the fire inclusion measure is complex, and warrants an overview. Here's how we got here.

The players

Littleton Fire Rescue has its origins in the city's original volunteer fire department, founded in 1890. Today the department employs 179 personnel spread across nine fire stations, covering a population of about 220,000.

The majority of LFR's 92-square-mile service area is not actually the city of Littleton itself, but areas covered by the city's two fire partners: Littleton Fire Protection District, which covers a large area east and west of the city including Columbine Valley, Bow Mar, Chatfield, parts of Centennial and Greenwood Village; and Highlands Ranch Metro District, which covers an area mostly south of C-470, stretching south nearly to Sedalia.

South Metro Fire Rescue is a large consolidated district, currently made up of nearly 500 personnel spread across a 295-square-mile area with a population of 279,500, according to the authority's 2018 budget. South Metro currently provides fire protection service for much of Arapahoe and Douglas counties, including Parker, Foxfield, Cherry Hills Village, Lone Tree, the Meridian and Inverness office parks and others. South Metro absorbed Cunningham Fire

Protection District, which was on the southeast side of the Denver metro area, effective Jan. 1, 2018.

History lesson

Littleton Fire Protection District and Highlands Ranch Metro District both announced in November 2017 that they would exercise their contractual right to cut ties with Littleton, and become part of South Metro effective Jan. 1, 2019.

The partners cited feeling shut out of the department's decision-making process, which was up to a city council in Littleton that they were unable to vote for. They also said the City of Littleton's future financial stability looked weaker than South Metro's, saying South Metro could better provide for future capital costs like new trucks and equipment.

The decision wasn't exactly a surprise — The City of Littleton officially began exploring the option of merging with South Metro Fire Rescue in Sept. 2016, and the idea of a merger was hinted at in organizational efficiency studies dating back to 2008.

Littleton City Council effectively decided at a Dec. 5 study session to dismantle its fire department and pursue a full merger with South Metro. The other options, council said, were less desirable: Merging with West Metro, another consolidated district, would have been more expensive; contracting with Denver — as Englewood did in 2015 — would have resulted in a lower level of service; and running a stand-alone department would have required a sharp increase in cost and caused a reduction in service.

Merging with South Metro made sense, councilmembers said at the time, because the two departments had a long history of cooperation and joint training, and had already merged their dispatch capabilities.

By March, a plan emerged: Littleton would dismantle its fire department effective Jan. 1, 2019, and begin contracting with South Metro for fire protection service thereafter. The plan will make South Metro the second-largest fire department in Colorado, behind Denver.

Decisions, decisions

The decision before Littleton voters this fall will be whether to allow South Metro to expand its boundaries to include Littleton beginning Jan. 1, 2020.

LFPD and Highlands Ranch will become full-fledged members of South Metro on Jan. 1, 2019, which was approved by voters in the districts in May 2018.

If Littleton voters approve inclusion, Littleton will see its mill levy rate drop from 6.662 to 2.0 beginning in 2020, but homeowners will pay a new mill levy of 9.25 directly to South Metro, making for a new cumulative mill levy of 11.25.

The price tag translates to an increase of roughly $120 a year in taxes on a home valued at $370,000, according to city projections.

In return, proponents say, Littleton will receive improved fire protection service from South Metro, thanks to an economy of scale. South Metro staffs four responders on every truck, compared to Littleton's three. South Metro is also one of only 56 departments out of nearly 45,000 nationwide to receive both accreditation from the Commission on Fire Accreditation International and a service rating of 1 from the Insurance Service Office.

South Metro would also add a new seat on its board to represent Littleton, with the member chosen by the Littleton City Council.

With the savings offset by no longer paying for a fire department if voters approve the plan, Littleton City Council has pledged to redirect more than $3 million a year toward road repairs.

If voters reject inclusion, Littleton will continue contracting with South Metro regardless. The city mill levy will remain the same, meaning Littleton will pay the difference in cost out of pocket, to the tune of $1.5 million per year. The disparity could spell trouble for Littleton's budget, as the extra cash would come out of the city's general fund, which is already tightening in the face of slowing revenue growth and increasing expenses.

In an attempt to stave off such a scenario, if voters reject inclusion this fall, Littleton would hold repeated votes seeking inclusion starting in May 2019 and likely continuing each November and May until inclusion is approved.

Yeas and nays

The inclusion plan has drawn numerous big-name endorsements, including from the South Metro Denver Chamber of Commerce, the town of Columbine Valley, the City of Centennial, the Colorado State Fire Chiefs organization and others.

Littleton and South Metro's firefighters' unions are in full-throated support of inclusion, and Littleton's firefighters stand to gain a pay raise upon joining South Metro Fire department inclusions are becoming more common nationwide, with an internet search showing dozens of metro departments in the process of merging or consolidating. The Los Angeles metro area, for example, is now mostly covered by a vast single department.

The plan is not without its detractors, notably a cadre of familiar faces in Littleton politics — many associated with the Sunshine political watchdog group — who argue the plan is a boondoggle that unfairly benefits South Metro.

With only weeks to go before the vote, Littleton and South Metro officials are planning a variety of speaking engagements to civic organizations to discuss the merger plans. Meanwhile, Littleton Fire Rescue Chief Chris Armstrong has accepted a job as chief of a county fire department in Georgia.

Both the City of Littleton and South Metro have set up webpages spelling out the terms of inclusion, available at littletongov.org and southmetro.org.