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.)
Local No. 64 supported the decision to make EMS "fire based." The move made sense, Wing says, because KCKFD medics were already performing a lot of the functions — such as "packaging the patient" — that MAST was under contract to deliver. "It was a really wise business deal," Wing tells me.
The fire department's EMS division employs 66 people, according to the budget, so the move also increased Local No. 64's membership.
Louie Wright, the man who runs the union of firefighters in Kansas City, Missouri, has a reputation for getting what he wants. Wing appears to be no slouch, either.
In 2005, Wyandotte County was set to elect a new mayor. Former state Rep. Rick Rehorn emerged from the primary with the most votes. Joe Reardon, a UG commissioner, placed second.
Before the primary, Rehorn had talked about reducing the size of the fire department through attrition. The statement did not sit well with Local No. 64.
A few days after the primary, Reardon stood outside fire headquarters and announced his support for labor. Local No. 64's political action committee wrote his campaign a check. Reardon routed Rehorn in the general election.
Someone familiar with the fire department's operations has told me that as many as four fire stations could close before residents would notice a slowdown in response times. This individual says the fire station in Fairfax "may run one or two calls a month, and it's for a heart attack at [the] General Motors [plant]."
The UG, in turn, says the fire department is busier than ever. In 2009, the department dispatched nearly 25,000 calls for emergency service — up 28 percent since 2004, the year the department took over for MAST.
My source says the numbers are inflated because the fire department sends out heavy apparatus to treat broken ankles as well as life-threatening injuries. As a result, the source says, the department's equipment "gets the nuts run off it."
Of course, for a resident who has a stroke or a grease fire, a well-funded fire department seems like a good use of tax dollars. The question isn't whether having a somewhat extravagant fire department is bad but whether it's inefficient. Public safety consumes 51 cents of every dollar that the county collects. Is that number sustainable? Is the 18th fire station a fair trade for those potholes?
Last summer, County Administrator Dennis Hays warned citizens that lawn mowings and snow clearings would be less frequent. Parks programs and bus routes were cut. The Wyandotte County Museum closed. The front door of the courthouse is locked because the UG can't afford to post a security guard.
Writing this, it's hard not to feel like a twerp. Firefighters, after all, take black smoke into their lungs in the course of duty. I tap at a keyboard.
At the same time, Wyandotte County looks more and more like a driver who has bought an expensive insurance policy for a sputtering old heap.
Note (April 2): The 61 percent increase in the administrative division's budget is misleading as it was presented in the original version of this column. The increase reflects an accounting change. The administrative division's 2010 budget includes a line item of $922,920 for capital expenses -- lease payments for trucks, etc. These capital expenses appeared elsewhere in the 2009 budget. In fact, the KCKFD's administrative division's 2010 budget provides less money for personnel, services and supplies than it did in 2009.
A week prior to the story's publication, I sent an e-mail to a county spokesman asking him to put me in touch with Budget Director Lisa Kearney so that I could ask her about the administrative division's numbers. The detail was not provided until after the story was published.