Independence considers ballot measure to raise fire safety tax

By Mike Genet
The Examiner
The city of Independence is considering adding an issue to the November election ballot on possibly raising the fire safety tax because of needed repairs, renovation and expansion to Independence Fire Department facilities.

Independence city leaders are considering asking voters to replace the current fire sales tax with a larger one, as the fire department deals with an ever-increasing call load and the issues associated with that. 

The current sales tax is 1/8 of one cent – first approved by voters in 2004 and renewed in 2016. The City Council could vote Aug. 16 to put a measure on the November ballot asking voters to repeal that tax and instead impose a 1/2-cent sales tax, effective in 2022. 

If voters approve a greater tax, the additional revenue could be used for, among many things, a replacement or additional fire station. Half of the revenue would go toward additional personnel, and half would go toward capital improvements, such as buildings, vehicles and equipment. 

The council is scheduled to discuss the possible ballot measure at Monday’s study session meeting. It would need to approve to certify a ballot measure by Aug. 24 to be included on the November ballot. 

In late May, Independence Fire Department Chief Doug Short explained to the council how the call loads have grown disproportionate to station locations, and two of the department’s 10 stations need to be replaced soon. 

In 2020, the IFD logged more than 23,400 calls – more than a 3 percent increase from 2019 (22,500) and a 33 percent increase since 2009 (15,600). 

“It’s not an unusual thing, even with COVID,” Short said of having increased calls annually. 

However, the station districts are based on call loads and locations from 1987, and all stations have been at their current locations since 1993. Hence, average response times tend to increase, including from 5 minutes, 20 seconds in 2019 to 5:41 in 2020. 

With GPS capabilities now, trucks can be dispatched based on proximity more than strictly district, Short said, but even so, “We lack some areas of the city that have in particular some slow times and maybe are falling behind with the population. 

“When you look at 11 of 14 companies, they’re responding to over 2,000 calls per year. That call load has to be restudied to get our apparatus closer to where our calls are today.” 

The prime example is the area of Missouri 291 from 39th Street to U.S. 40 that has particularly grown busier over the past two decades, and Short said it would be an ideal area to build a new station or redeploy one. Right now, that area is on the outskirts of three districts: stations placed at Phelps Road and 39th Street (No. 2), next to Adventure Oasis near 23rd Street and M-291 (7) and R.D. Mize Road east of Little Blue Parkway (10). 

“It’s difficult to reach a lot of those (calls),” Short said. “I think it would be prudent for us to do a deployment study if we do this. They can tell you where the locations would be best to put stations.” 

The department’s oldest station, Station 8 at Truman Road near the power plant, was built in 1964 and needs replacement soon, as it can’t accommodate most modern fire vehicles, Short said. Renovating that station after the 2004 sales tax approval was simply “putting lipstick on a pig,” the chief said, and didn’t include expansion.  

The second-oldest, Station 5 on 35th Street near Sterling Avenue, was built in 1980 and has experienced settling issues caused by a spring on what originally was park land. 

“Not only was it probably not built quite big enough,” Short said of No. 5, “but this station has gone through many repairs on the flooring as well as the walls. We know that the spring is getting its use and starting to undermine the station.” 

Station 10 is one of three on the east side built on a residential foundation that would be next for replacement down the road, Short said. When the sales tax first passed, three stations were built or replaced and the other seven renovated. 

“When the tax was renewed, we did not have that additional money to replace stations,” the chief said. “We’re getting to a point now where that station replacement is going to be pretty important.” 

Increased calls also can lead to crew fatigue and puts more stress on the vehicles, Short said, and the department has had to shorten its timeline on replacing some as maintenance costs grow too high. Short said the department could consider a community paramedicine approach, in which a small group of EMS workers would handle some lower priority calls and frequent callers, rather than sending a pumper truck as an emergency for every call. The Central Jackson County Fire Protection District has been successful with that approach in recent years. 

While only about 4 percent of all service calls to the fire department are fire alarms, about 75 percent are for EMS services, Short said. 

“Right now, an emergency is interpreted by the person that says they have the emergency, not by us,” Short said.  

Additional personnel, whether to staff an additional station or supplement existing stations, ideally would reduce overtime costs. Currently, the department has more than 150 firefighters in the field, and Short said reasons for overtime always vary. It could depend on how quickly staff get replaced, or how many are on workman’s compensation or family leave.  

“It’s always hard to figure out where we get to that tipping point, of where do we add staff or pay overtime,” Mayor Eileen Weir said.