Why Switch from a Service That Works for Us?

Posted on April 03, 2003 | Type: In the News
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Scottsdale Fire Vote May 20

DAVID DODENHOFF SPECIAL TO THE TRIBUNE -- David Dodenhoff, an adjunct fellow with the Hudson Institute, is the author of a new Goldwater Institute study, "A Test of Fire: Rural/Metro and the Future of Fire Services in Scottsdale."

During the days of the long-distance telephone wars, it seemed that almost every night a sales rep would call and try to convince me to switch carriers. I would explain that I'd been with my carrier a long time, the service was excellent, and the price was right. Why would I want to switch?

Scottsdale voters find themselves in a similar situation. On May 20, they will decide whether to end the city's relationship with Rural/Metro, the private company that has delivered Scottsdale's fire service for more than 50 years, and create a city-run fire department. The sensible vote is to retain Rural/Metro's high quality, cost-effective service and reject the move to a publicly-run department.

Last year, Scottsdale received a highly favorable audit of Rural/Metro's performance. Independent auditor Maximus found that Rural/Metro's service "meets or exceeds most of the best management practices identified by the project team." The auditor added that the company's service was "effective, efficient, and high-quality."

Not surprisingly, the company routinely earns satisfaction ratings of nearly 100 percent among Scottsdale residents, and Scottsdale consistently has fire property losses well below the national average for cities of its size. For those reasons, the Maximus auditors specifically recommended against the creation of a municipal fire department.

Why, then, does the firefighters' union insist that change is necessary? Its primary argument is that Rural/ Metro's response times are too slow and its staffing inadequate. The Maximus report, however, declared the company's average fire response time "quite good," and added, "units are currently staffed, deployed, and dispatched to provide a response capability consistent with. . . industry standards/best practices."

As for staffing, the report noted that the city's fire staffing standards "are generally consistent with industry standards/best practices." The report did identify some areas for improvement, but they were just that-areas for improvement, not wholesale change.

[Paragraph omitted: The union also says that a city fire department would be less expensive than Rural/Metro's service. Two independent estimates by Maximus and the City of Scottsdale, however, indicate that costs would be between $3 million and $7 million more in the first year of city service alone than under the Rural/Metro contract.]

The union also claims that a city department could cut response times by joining other Valley departments in an automatic-aid consortium that uses a central dispatch system, deploying the fire rigs and personnel that are closest to a fire, regardless of their city of origin. What the union doesn't say is that Scottsdale could join automatic aid now, if it wishes. But doing so would require technology upgrades that the City Council has yet to approve and that a recent Scottsdale citizens' commission chose not to recommend.

Finally, the union argues that being government employees would offer Scottsdale firefighters access to Arizona's generous public safety officer retirement plan, and to the federal government's firefighter death and disability benefit.

With Rural/Metro, they have access to neither, though they may participate in the company's 401(k) plan. The city of Scottsdale may indeed wish to boost its firefighters' retirement benefits and provide for a death/ disability payment similar to the federal one. But this is something that could be easily negotiated with Rural/ Metro, and does not require creation of a municipal department.

The phone is ringing, Scottsdale voters. Don't pick up.

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