AS LOCAL governments struggle to balance their budgets amid a deep recession, officials often invoke an either-or proposition: Slash services or hike taxes. But the proposed combination of the Toledo and Ottawa Hills fire departments suggests a third way - rational sharing of public services - that could become a model for broader regional collaboration.
Under the proposal, announced by the mayors of both communities, Ottawa Hills would pay Toledo $425,000 a year to provide fire protection and emergency medical services starting Jan. 1. The city Fire and Rescue Department would take over Ottawa Hills' fire station and buy the village's fire vehicles. It would absorb Ottawa Hills' 10 full-time firefighters once the village disbands its own department.
The communities already have a mutual-aid agreement that enables Toledo firefighters to respond to emergencies in the village. Proponents credibly describe the broader arrangement as a win-win: Ottawa Hills, they say, will benefit by cutting its cost of fire protection by more than half without compromising residents or businesses' safety.
The advantages to Toledo, they argue, include the city's ability to maintain fire department staffing, save money by greatly reducing overtime expenses, and get new revenue to help defray costs of employees and equipment. At the same time, they say, the department will be more capable of responding quickly to calls in some parts of Toledo by operating out of Ottawa Hills.
Before the municipal councils of the two communities approve the agreement, they will need to verify the financial advantages claimed by its supporters. For example, the city and village have not reached a purchase price for Ottawa Hills' fire trucks.
The councils also must examine potential objections to the proposal. Toledo Councilman D. Michael Collins wonders whether the agreement to take over the Ottawa Hills fire station would cause the fire department to close a city firehouse.
The union that represents Toledo firefighters is raising questions about how the Ottawa Hills firefighters' seniority will apply to calculations of vacation time and days off. Such considerations should not derail the deal, but they must be addressed.
The announcement of the pact comes as the city fire department is making heartening progress on another front: the end of a federal court order that mandated affirmative-action practices in hiring and promotions. The city has made those requirements part of its own civil-service rules, has reached agreement with its former opponents in the court case, and is reaching out to the community to recruit firefighters. These outcomes bode well for the department's diversity goals, as well as the selection of a new firefighter class.
It's significant that Ottawa Hills, Toledo's smaller and wealthier neighbor, initiated the discussions that led to the consolidation proposal. It's to be hoped that the city and its suburbs, as well as county government, will look for other opportunities to cooperate to achieve the goals of fiscal responsibility and innovation in the provision of public services.
Working together for mutual benefit, and discarding obsolete us-against-them sentiments, form the foundation of regional advancement.
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