St. Tammany has 13 different districts devoted to fire protection, including Covington’s department. A few years ago, consultants delivered a plan to merge the parish’s districts eventually into three. Recently revived, this brought up arguments relevant to an idea that floated around Caddo Parish a few years ago to separate the areas outside of Shreveport into a district, as well as reminding of the saga of the past several years where people in most of the unincorporated areas of East Baton Rouge have attempted to create their own district, even going so far as trying to form a municipality to enhance that effort.
Special districts such as these have differing aspects that argue for or against separation or consolidation. Much research has focused on school districts in light of the tremendous consolidation undergone by these occurring in less than a century, cutting the number of districts by nearly 90 percent. Those efforts produced a mixed bag.
Districts too small can’t take advantage of economies of scale. But, as a district grows larger labor costs in particular begin to rise compared to smaller units. In fact, districts above 1,000 but below 3,500 students appear to have the lowest relative costs. And other factors idiosyncratically come into play, such as geography, that could swing the argument one way or the other.
Many fewer studies focus on special districts, and fewer still particularly on fire districts. These typically show mergers generate monetary benefits, in greater efficiency in operation and reduced fire insurance costs for taxpayers as fire safety ratings generally improve as a result. Not all succeeded or went smoothly, mainly because of resistance from personnel of the involved agencies and political attitudes hostile to the idea.
Those troublesome hallmarks appear in the case of St. Tammany. There, agency officials oppose merging, alleging higher costs and worse service would result, despite the consultant’s data showing savings would occur and fire ratings could improve plus conclusions of more general research. Additionally, the patchwork arrangement leaves some agencies flush in resources and others wanting, leading to considerable deviations in ratings. Consequent to the stakeholder skepticism, the parish has put the idea on the back burner.
Which is the wrong move. While the wisdom of bringing together or breaking up school districts depends very much on the individual circumstances involved, the case for fire district consolidation doesn’t have much ambiguity. Research involving this kind of uniform service delivery to a largely undifferentiated population – unlike with education where permutations based upon choice, state support, and differing characteristics of the client population that affect optimal learning strategies – shows that, unless detractors sabotage the process, mergers almost always bring benefits.
Resident taxpayers in St. Tammany deserve the best fire service possible at the best price. Merging parish fire districts would do that.