Keep fire district together

But do so with transparency, greater public involvement

It is in the best interests of all concerned to keep intact Durango Fire & Rescue Authority. Allowing it to break up would be messy, confusing, almost certainly expensive and could threaten the service it was formed to provide.

With that in mind, officials of DFRA’s three component districts are right to be talking about what changes need to be made to allow for the authority to go forward as one entity. And if funding is at issue – when is it not? – that, too, should be part of the discussion.

But no deal should go forward unless and until the details have been made public and all of DFRA’s constituents are given a chance to weigh in. Fire and rescue services are too important, and the history of DFRA too contentious, to risk the perception of an unbalanced or unfair arrangement being presented as a done deal.

DFRA was formed in 2002 by combining the resources and duties of the Animas and Hermosa fire districts with the city of Durango’s fire department. Also included was the ambulance service that had been operated by Mercy Regional Medical Center.

The arrangement made – and still makes – sense from a logistical and organizational standpoint. With a unified command structure, resources could be better coordinated and more efficiently and effectively deployed.

In other senses, however, the three districts were never an easy fit. Animas covers a sprawling 325 square miles. Hermosa is the farthest from the hospital, by far the least populated and includes the priciest real estate. Durango is compact, and the most densely developed.

Differing funding mechanisms further complicate the merger. Hermosa and Animas have dedicated, but different mill levies. The city of Durango contributes from its general fund – an arrangement Durango voters have twice declined to change. (Enacting a level DFRA-wide mill levy would amount to a large tax increase for Durango property owners.) And with those differing funding streams, Animas and Hermosa have to keep their separate boards.

Awkward as they are, though, those are problems that can be worked out. All concerned have lawyers, and all involved can do the requisite math. Outside those actually serving on them, few people worry much about the boards themselves.

To most people, the only issue is whether someone will come to help if they dial 911, and on that level DFRA seems to be operating well. To continue that, however, the DFRA’s three component districts need to come to some accord. And that will requires a broad consensus that it is reasonably fair.

But what does fairness mean in that context? And how can it be measured?

Counting registered voters (active and inactive) Animas contains slightly more than half the population of the area served by DFRA, Durango has slightly less than half and Hermosa about 2 percent. Those numbers do not suggest an easy answer.

As the Herald reported Tuesday, Animas and Durango have about the same number of fire calls, while Durango has more ambulance calls. Should that be the metric? If so, should distance be factored in? Time? Animas, after all, is far larger, and while it may have fewer ambulance calls, both those and fire calls presumably cover greater distances.

There are any number of ways to argue what is fair to the different districts. To be fair to the taxpayers, however, whatever is arranged needs to be fully explained both in its details and in the underlying thinking. And that needs to happen before the deal is signed.