OTTUMWA — Public safety and money. Those topics weigh heavily on city leaders.

Ottumwa Mayor Dale Uehling is working to develop a task force to study merging fire departments. He wants to enhance public safety throughout Wapello County.

He has written a letter to Lawrence Schmitz, chairman of the Wapello County Rural Fire Board of Directors, about the possibility of a task force to study these issues.

“The city council’s goal is to increase fire protection for property in the rural area,” Uehling said Friday. “We don’t want to take over the rural fire department. We can’t. But, something can be done, perhaps a mutual agreement.”

The mayor said the money situation “has been coming on” and “taxpayers in Ottumwa ought to be very interested.” As reported earlier this year, police and fire protection comprises 82-84 percent of the city’s general fund.

On April 3, Finance Director Mike Heffernan sent the mayor and the council a memo on how general funds vary among Ottumwa and its “sister cities” — Burlington, Clinton, Fort Dodge, Mason City and Muscatine.

“The gap between Ottumwa and our sister cities grew because they had an average increase of 1 percent in taxable value while we had a slight decrease,” Heffernan wrote.

The sister cities’ average taxable value is $200 million more, or 42 percent more than Ottumwa’s. Their general fund revenue is $1.6 million higher, or 41 percent more, according to Heffernan.

“On a per capita basis, their general fund is 33 percent more than Ottumwa’s. Even the average of Oskaloosa’s and Fairfield’s general fund revenue per capita is 19 percent more than ours here in Ottumwa,” Heffernan said.

Until this gap is narrowed, Ottumwa will always struggle to provide basic services (police, fire, parks, etc.), he added.

Some citizens blame the Bridge View Center for funding problems.

“The problem we have is not Bridge View, which is a positive thing and will grow out of the [financial] hole,” Uehling said. “We’re getting new businesses, jobs and expansion. But, in the short term, we have a problem to face.”

City leaders do not want to cut any firefighters or police officers.

“We want to work together to improve safety for citizens. If we do, our insurance could go down,” Uehling said.

If a merger was successful, the rural fire station could handle the southern part of the county; Central Station at Fourth and Wapello streets could handle the city; and a new station in the Rochester Street area could handle any homes outside the city and near the highway bypass.

This arrangement could bring a “better insurance services rating,” which could mean “cheaper insurance,” the mayor added.

“We want to open this up for discussion and we want some feedback,” Uehling said. “Is there a plan? No. But one has to be developed. I believe it’s a safety issue and a tax issue.”

City Administrator Andy Morris and Ottumwa Fire Chief Steve O’Connor sent a May 17 memo to fire department employees about consolidation. O’Connor deferred comment to Morris and the mayor.

On Friday, Morris said city leaders “don’t want to upset anyone” and are doing “preliminary work” on finding answers for public safety and financial concerns.

“We want to see whether we and other fire jurisdictions can work together. This is the only way to find out, to get the word out,” Morris said.

The mayor touched on two other related issues. First, financial burdens for the city also include employee health and retirement benefits that were developed in the 1970s, when the city’s finances were healthier.

“I really don’t want to cut anyone’s health or retirement benefits,” the mayor said.

The second issue is “turf wars,” which refers to jurisdictional boundaries for various emergency agencies and disagreements about which agency should respond to a call. Uehling would like to see departments work together and determine which agency can get to the scene quickest.

Uehling said, if the project is successful, any changes would take two to three years to manifest.

“But we need to start. The initial stage is talking to Wapello Rural Fire,” he said.

Cindy Toopes can be reached at (641) 683-5376 or via e-mail at cindy@ottumwacourier.com.

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