Commission approves, Fiscal Court votes down feasibility study concerning fire department unification
Published 11:30 am Monday, September 4, 2023
The Greater Clark Foundation (GCF) had previously presented the possibility of a feasibility study regarding the unification of the Clark County Fire Department and City of Winchester Fire/EMS.
At a joint meeting last Monday, Aug. 25, at the central office of the Clark County Board of Education, voting about participating in a feasibility study led to mixed results.
While the Winchester Board of Commissioners voted in favor of going forth with participating in a feasibility study, the Clark County Fiscal Court voted against going forth in a narrow 4-3 decision.
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“What we’d like to do tonight is go deeper in that concept [and] answer questions that might come up for folks and how or if there’s an appetite to move forward with it,” said Jen Algire, president and CEO of GCF. “My understanding as someone who hasn’t been in the community for generations is that the conversation about merging county and city fire is one that has come up often in the past.”
As a joint meeting, Mayor JoEllen Reed and Clark County Judge-Executive Les Yates were present.
They were joined by Commissioners Kenny Book, Shannon Cox, Kitty Stroud, Hannah Toole, and Magistrates Robert Blanton, Steve Craycraft, Chris Davis, Dan Konstantopoulos, Mark Miller and Ernest Pasley.
Speaking first, Algire stated that – among other benefits – she believed unification of the departments would benefit Winchester and Clark County residents regardless of where they lived and provide solutions to problems faced by both.
Paperwork presented by GCF stated this could lead to $2 million in savings on land acquisition between the county and city.
If the feasibility study occurred, GCF would be willing to fund 70% of it, hold and administer the contract, and ask the City and County to contribute the remaining 30% – 15% each – with no amount exceeding $25,000.
A proposed Feasibility Study Committee, consisting of 13 members with GCF as a neutral convener, would have several individuals, including a pair of magistrates, a city commissioner, the mayor and Clark County judge-executive, three at-large or subject matter experts, and more.
Many officials on hand spoke, with Magistrates Blanton and Konstantopoulos and Commissioner Cox inquiring about the ISO rating.
An ISO fire rating reflects how prepared a community and area is for handling fires, which can broadly impact homeowner insurance.
Winchester Fire Department Chief Chris Whitely spoke.
“ISO looks at about three things specifically. One is [the] water supply. One is personnel responding. One is communications”, Whitely said. “I think there’s a number of things that will be looked at in this feasibility study. To isolate one topic as a reason not to do it, I don’t think will be fair.”
Yates inquired about the timeframe of the feasibility study, with Algire responding that she hoped it could be completed in approximately four months.
Cox, who advocated for the study, stated that previous examples of unification in different counties led to positive results.
“We can stop the [study] any time we want, but if we never start, we’ll never know,” Cox said.
However, not all were in support.
Magistrate Ernest Pasley mentioned concerns about water supply, which he felt might have been overlooked.
Stating that he believed the topic would be discussed, but there would not be a vote on going forth with it, and that he wished for more data, Konstantopoulos was also against voting for it.
Among other concerns, Magistrate Chris Davis felt that county residents would less support it.
“A lot of people in the county or rural parts of the county are going to be very sensitive to the fact that they think their participation and their needs are [not prioritized],” Davis said. “I will tell you there’s a lot of people in the county who [will] feel like if they’re giving up their county fire department…they’re going to be very, very upset.”
Magistrate Mark Miller spoke concerning both city and county Fire.
“One of the things that I’m a firm believer in is that both Chiefs know more about the Fire Department than we all do,” Miller said. “I would love to hear both of them sit down and talk about what the pros and cons are…that would help me a lot.”
While not taking a firm position for or against the study, Clark County Fire Department Chief Steve Asbury sought to affirm the efficiency of both to the public.
Ultimately, while the vote to engage in a feasibility study passed unanimously via the Winchester Board of Commissioners, it was turned down 4-3 by the Clark County Fiscal Court.
Magistrates Blanton, Craycraft and Judge Yates were in favor, while Davis, Konstantopoulos, Miller, and Pasley were against.
“Obviously, I’m disappointed that some folks on the Fiscal Court felt they did not have enough information to decide to move ahead,” Algire said.
Algire hopes it will be put forth as an agenda item at an upcoming Clark County Fiscal Court meeting.