Ready, Fire, Aim
A group has released a new plan to consolidate the fire departments of St. Louis County and create more independent fire districts. But, first, a little background.
The residents of St. Louis County are either served by municipal fire departments, such as the Clayton Fire Department, or by independent fire districts, such as the Monarch Fire District. The fire departments are run by the mayors, city councils, and city managers of their respective towns. The fire districts are run by independently elected fire boards.
In past years, there have been plenty of scandals in fire service management in St. Louis County. Clearly, the scandals must have been in the municipal fire departments, which is why the plan is to eliminate these departments and replace them with the Ceasar’s wives of the fire districts. Right?
The scandals in the fire districts have been well documented over the years by the Post-Dispatch and others. (Unfortunately, I am unable to locate online the main series of investigative stories from the Post-Dispatch that was published about 20 years ago—the lessons in it still stand.) It is the fire districts that have seen consistent financial mismanagement and worse. So why would somebody propose eliminating fire departments and expanding fire districts? Who would possibly propose such a thing?
The fireman’s union, of course. It is likely easier to take electoral control of an independent fire district than a city hall. People pay much more attention to their votes for mayor than their votes for fire district board. Mayors and city council members must consider the costs of fire service as one of many important services their cities provide and put that within a context of overall taxes and spending. Fire district officials just think about spending money on fire services, usually with much less oversight than a city hall gets. In a few places in recent years, such as the Mehlville and Monarch fire districts, newly elected members of the districts have attempted to better control costs. Things have improved at those two major fire districts, but at the price of constant vigilance by the residents. There have been more recent examples of taxpayer abuses in the Northeast Fire District, and the Robertson Fire District is continuing to squeeze the City of Hazelwood to this day.
While nobody says democracy should be easy, you also don’t want to make it harder than it needs to be by constantly growing the number of special taxing districts that voters have to carefully pay attention to. Special interests can benefit from this lack of attention by the average voter, and that is why fire departments should remain under municipal control in St. Louis County.
Merging a dozen municipal fire departments in mid–St. Louis County into one large fire district is a bad idea. You almost have to admire the audacity of it.
There were some good ideas and some bad ideas in the Better Together proposal of a few years back. The work the organization did with the fire departments was probably some of its most poorly done work.
We do need more consolidation, service sharing, and less fragmentation in St. Louis County government. This proposal by the fireman’s union is absolutely the wrong way to go about it.