Like so many other places, the Unified Government of Wyandotte County is broke — layoffs, furloughs, service cuts, all that.
A firefighter who works in Kansas City, Kansas, may be oblivious to the pain, however.
The Kansas City, Kansas, Fire Department operates 18 stations — one fewer than the fire department in Wichita, a city with twice the population.
Overland Park, which is roughly equal to Wyandotte County in terms of the number of residents, will spend $13.9 million this year to pay the personnel costs of its 136 first responders, including firefighters.
The UG has budgeted $26.5 million for the 328 men and women who put out fires.
Fire departments, it should be noted, do not lend themselves to easy comparison. Kansas City, Missouri, for instance, outsources its ambulance service. In Kansas City, Kansas, emergency medical technicians work for the fire department.
Simple metrics such as head counts can be misleading, but comparisons remain possible, and the ones I've done suggest that Kansas City, Kansas, has more fire protection than it needs.
The city of Independence says the cost of operating its fire department amounts to $151.88 per resident. I set up a similar equation for Kansas City, Kansas. The cost comes out to $284.75 per person.
UG officials do not deny that the KCKFD is an expensive enterprise. They prefer to talk instead about the department's range of responsibilities, the demands that residents and industry place on the system, and the speed at which trucks and ambulances reach an emergency.
Robert Wing, head of the International Association of Firefighters Local No. 64, KCK's firefighters union, keeps a clip of a 2005 newspaper story on his office wall. The article, which appeared in The Kansas City Star, reported that KCK set the standard in the metro for fire response times.
"We're pretty proud of that," Wing says. "That's why we are put together they way we are. We put a lot of work into being No. 1 in response times to our citizens."
But at some point, does an extra degree of readiness come at too steep a price?
Another example: Olathe spends $11.5 million answering emergency calls. The KCKFD spends more than twice that suppressing fires for a population that's only 15 percent larger than Olathe's.
And the high price of safety in KCK may be going up.
On April 13, voters will consider raising the sales tax .375 percent. Proponents of the initiative pledge that the money will be used only to pay for cops, firefighters, and such neighborhood needs as curbs and sidewalks. County officials hope that the emphasis on infrastructure and public safety — everyone likes firetrucks! — will make the tax hike seem tolerable.
The UG is strapped for cash. Property-tax collections were down $5.5 million last year. The loss of revenue has forced the UG to cut 300 workers. "We don't hire and we don't replace," said Ron Green, the county's director of payroll, at a recent community meeting sponsored by the Armourdale Optimist Club.
Green described a government struggling to provide the most basic services. "I've never seen potholes this bad since I was kid," he said.
John Paul Jones, the fire chief, also attended the meeting. "We're down about 55 positions," the chief said. Jones added that it was becoming increasingly difficult to run the department because retiring firefighters weren't being replaced.
Jones did not mention that the budget for the fire department's administrative division is scheduled to increase 61 percent in 2010.See note below.
(I asked the county if I could interview Jones. Request denied.)
The KCKFD already receives a dedicated sales tax. In 2004, voters approved a 0.25 percent increase to help the department take over emergency medical services from an outside agency, the Metropolitan Ambulance Services Trust. (Kansas City, Missouri, is in the process of merging MAST into its fire department.)