A Herald reader thought we were too enthusiastic about a proposed merger of the Smithfield and Selma fire departments. Without savings in personnel costs – which make up a chunk of fire department budgets – the benefits of a merger would be few, the reader said.
We admit to being so naïve as to believe that a merged fire department would operate with the optimum number of firefighters. That’s not a given, because we’ve been around long enough to know that government isn’t in the habit of shedding employees.
We get that. No department head wants to lay off a coworker, especially if that employee is both good at his job and likable. And for that matter, we don’t know that taxpayers are all that fond of layoffs, because town employees are their neighbors, friends and family.
But a department head can decide not to fill vacancies when they occur. Among Johnston County towns, it happened often during the Great Recession. And even in the best of financial times, leaving vacancies open is a common practice that helps department heads better manage their budgets.
So it’s possible that in Smithfield and Selma, a merged fire department could reach the optimum number of firefighters through attrition if layoffs proved unpalatable.
Ideally, the chief of a merged fire department would see that his department reached optimum staffing by whatever means proved most tenable. But in our experience, no bureaucrat wants to captain a shrinking ship.
So in a merged Smithfield-Selma fire department, the mandate for optimum operations would have to come from the elected leaders – the mayors and councilmen in the two towns. They would ultimately control the department’s purse strings, and they are the only ones accountable to taxpayers. (Voters can’t oust bureaucrats who fail to spend their money wisely. But they can elect new leaders to hire new bureaucrats.)
The bottom line is this: If the argument for a merged fire department is that it would save taxpayers money, and we think that’s a valid argument, then a merged fire department must save that money without compromising quality of service. Otherwise, a merger would be pointless.