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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.