Smithfield Fire Chief Patrick Harris says he sees no benefit to Smithfield in merging the Smithfield and Selma fire departments. We doubt Mr. Harris believes that unequivocally. More likely, he is concerned about what would become of the department he has called home for many years, and he could be forgiven for wondering what would become of his job.
Firefighting is a capital-intensive operation, so Mr. Harris surely knows a merger would benefit Smithfield because Selma taxpayers would share in the cost of fire trucks and other firefighting gear used in Smithfield.
But a fire department is more than its trucks and gear. In the words of a friend in town government outside of Smithfield or Selma, a fire department is “governance, cost accounting and distribution of costs, personnel policies and service goals.” If those are Mr. Harris’ true reservations, then Smithfield and Selma leaders should share them.
It is fair and essential to ask who would govern a merged Smithfield and Selma fire department. A board made up of council members from both towns? An independent board appointed by the two councils?
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How would a merged department distribute its costs? Would each town pay based on its population? Its tax base? Its square mileage?
And what about pay and benefits and performance reviews? Would a merged fire department mirror Smithfield or Selma, or would it set its own compensation and performance policies?
As for service goals, Mr. Harris no doubt has his own ideas about the quality and quantity of services a fire department should offer. He can be forgiven if questioning whether a merged fire department would have the same goals.
We happen to think a merged fire department would benefit both towns, but these are serious questions, and the time to answer them is now, not after the fact of a merger decision.