“I don’t see what the intellectual basis for opposing the fire merger could possibly be.”
Those are the words of Mayor Bart Peterson in April of 2005. He was pushing for a fire department merger that today, nine years later, has been only partially – achieved. Several township departments have become part of the Indianapolis Fire Department over the years.
Pike Township, Wayne Township and Decatur Township are still holding out. As we saw at the Statehouse today, a lot of people still don’t see the logic of consolidation.
I checked my archives of interviews with Mayor Peterson. Over the course of 2005, he described consolidation as “an idea that’s hard to argue with. Smaller, smarter government. Lower taxes for people. Avoiding service cuts. Avoiding tax increases. It just makes too much sense.” The concept arose with the discussion of other mergers — Indianapolis Police with the Marion County Sheriff’s Department, the call to merge assessors and merge budgets. Promoters presented all of it as a way to encourage “fiscal discipline” and save money.
It didn’t happen in 2005.
The next year, Peterson thought the environment had changed. He said he’d heard a lot of talk of compromise.
It didn’t happen in 2006.
“You can’t undertake something like this without having some naysayers. We’ve had naysayers. But probably fewer naysayers overall on the fire merger than on the police merger,” Peterson said. He still argued that consolidation would “significantly reduce the overall costs of the fire service” during “the property tax crisis that we are in the midst of right now.” He persisted in arguing that it would save taxpayers’ money. “To me, it’s a no-brainer.”
But, the legislature just said “no.” It didn’t happen in 2007.
The battle continued into the administration of Peterson’s successor. Last year, for example, Mayor Greg Ballard said “I’m not sure the will is there at the Statehouse.” He pointed to the township trustees who objected to consolidation. Ballard praised State Senator Jim Merritt for presenting a merger proposal because it “would make a lot of sense to us.”
It didn’t happen in 2013.
At the time, defenders of consolidation said, through the efficiencies of one big department, taxpayers would see fire service provided at a lower cost. I remember a merger defender accusing the holdout township trustees of being primarily interested in preserving their power. If they wanted to save money, “they would be joining IFD on their own.”
One fire chief in a holdout township told me his firefighters would get raises and adjusted work schedules. He predicted consolidation would require additional hiring. So, he didn’t believe in the promised cost savings.
That chief also said the law allows voluntary mergers. So, he said if the holdouts wanted to join IFD, they probably would have done it by now.
At the Statehouse today, Chief Gene Konzen of the Wayne Township Fire Department told us “being forced in is not going to help us fix some of the problems that are out there now.” He even recalled the original plan of 2005.
“If we could get everybody together and sit down and update that plan and create a better system for the entire Indianapolis Fire Department — all of us — I can’t see why our community and firefighters, businesses and all that wouldn’t want to go in as one fire department. I think we just need to rebuild it. Fix it all.”
Maybe they will try, again, in 2015.