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Contract change affects Urbana Fire

Department might need to let jobs go unfilled after township deal.

As area townships negotiate to get the best rate for fire and emergency medical services, a recent contract change could affect staffing at the Urbana Fire Division as well.

Union Twp. is negotiating to allow the village of Mechanicsburg to cover more territory, but doing so could mean a reduction in staffing for the Urbana Fire Division because of less revenue, according to Mark Keller, chief of the Urbana Fire Division.

After the city recently sought higher rates for fire and EMS service, several of the county’s townships looked for ways to negotiate for a better rate, including discussion of a long-term proposal to begin a new fire district in the county.

Two Urbana city firefighters are expected to retire at the end of the year, and Keller said it’s possible those positions may not be replaced because of the expected loss of revenue from the contract with Union Twp. That could mean higher overtime costs and change the tactics the city uses to respond to some emergencies.

Although he said Mechanicsburg firefighters provide good service, Keller said he also has concerns a new agreement may mean higher response times for some residents at the edge of the village’s new coverage area at the township’s western border.

“We would be able to respond a lot easier and quicker,” Keller said. “We have more straight routes to that area.”

Under its current contract, Union Twp. is paying about $43,400 to the city to provide fire and EMS coverage to the northern part of the township west of the village of Mutual. That rate is expected to increase to $50,831 and $55,251 by 2015, before it begins to stabilize with smaller annual increases of about 3 percent, Keller said.

Union township also has contracts in place with the Mechanicsburg Fire District, which covers most of the township east of Mutual. The Pleasant Twp. Fire District covers a small area in southern Union Twp. Officials from Union Twp. could not be reached for comment Wednesday.

Officials in Union Twp. informed Keller in July that they plan to opt out of their agreement with the city and instead seek an agreement with the Mechanicsburg Fire Department to cover the city’s former portion of the township. The Pleasant Twp. Fire District would also pick up a slightly larger area in the southern portion of the township.

The change will take effect in January, and the city would continue to provide mutual aid for Mechanicsburg when necessary, Keller said. But losing the revenue from Union Twp. will also likely mean a staff reduction for the city’s fire division. Overall, the Urbana Fire Division spends about $2.2 million for salaries and benefits. The city receives about $280,000 from its contracts with local townships this year, and that figure could rise to about $317,000 by 2015.

“It’s a small amount, but when we’re living day-to-day it tends to be a little bit more,” Keller said.

The Urbana Fire Division now has 23 employees, including Keller and assistant chiefs. The city responded to 49 calls in Union Twp. last year, including 35 EMS calls and four fire calls.

The village has not finalized a contract with Union Twp., but barring unforeseen changes an agreement could be in place before the end of the year, said April Davis, village administrator for Mechanicsburg. While final figures were not available, Davis said the village expects to be able to offer a better rate than the city. Mechanicsburg already has a three-year contract in place for the area of Union Twp. it currently covers, but would have to create a separate contract for the new coverage area.

Any new revenue for Mechanicsburg would likely be used to help cover fire and EMS equipment costs, said Mark Randall, chief of the Mechanicsburg Fire Department.The village department includes about 24 part-time staff, as well as volunteers, and is covered 24 hours a day, Randall said. Picking up additional territory would not necessarily mean adding staff, he said.

“The plans are we should be able to cover it with the guys we have now with staffing,” Randall said.

The Urbana Fire Division has avoided layoffs so far, in part because it slashed its overtime and acquired a federal grant that temporarily covered the salary and benefits for a firefighter.

Although the city has seen an increase in revenue from income taxes, city officials have said those gains have been offset by cuts in state funding. That means revenue for the fire division has remained stagnant while costs, including equipment and fuel, have risen, Keller said.

“It can be done,” Keller said of operating the division with a smaller staff. “The problem is we lose people, and it’s going to mean changing our tactics and how we do things.”

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