Politics & Government

County considering merger of fire district with Wichita, Derby

FILE - Sedgwick County firefighters douse a series of grass fires along K-42 in 2014.
FILE - Sedgwick County firefighters douse a series of grass fires along K-42 in 2014. The Wichita Eagle

Sedgwick County’s mostly rural fire district could merge with fire departments in Wichita and Derby.

County Counselor Eric Yost asked the Kansas Attorney General’s Office for legal clarification on several issues related to consolidating fire districts and departments under state law. Yost said talks about consolidating fire services are still in the very early stages.

“It’s not something that’s anywhere near being ready,” Yost said. “We want to know what we can do and how it would work if we decide to go down the road.”

“The hard part of it will be the political part of it, which is getting the city and the county to work it out,” he added.

Sedgwick County Fire District Number One provides fire protection and rescue for roughly 85,000 residents in unincorporated areas and small towns outside Wichita that don’t have their own professional fire force. The district’s nine fire stations are responsible for covering about 630 square miles of Sedgwick County.

Although it is governed by Sedgwick County’s five commissioners, it is a legally different entity from the county with its own tax base.

Chairman Dave Unruh said most commissioners are in favor of possible consolidation. He said the county fire district already has agreements with Wichita and Derby “where they help us and we help them.”

“There’s a lot of crossover of men and equipment. I don’t mean to imply it’s wasteful,” Unruh said. “But I think there are some logical efficiencies that can be gained.”

Unruh said the fire district has lost tax dollars as cities like Wichita and Derby grow and take on more fire responsibilities. He also said the fire district’s fiscal woes make consolidation more attractive.

“It just seems like it would be mutually beneficial,” he said. “It seems like the best thing for all the citizens in the county, not just the ones in the unincorporated area.”

Unruh said they’ve mostly had “collegial conversation(s)” with Wichita or Derby officials.

“We need to find out what’s possible and what the restrictions are,” Unruh said.

Under Kansas law, fire district or department leaders can ask the county commission to consolidate them into one entity.

An election must be held within 90 days if more than 5 percent of registered voters in each area sign a petition against consolidation, wrote Attorney General Derek Schmidt and Assistant Attorney General Craig Paschang in their Sept. 15 opinion.

The opinion also discussed a fire district’s debt payments and the distinction between fire districts and departments.

Daniel Salazar: 316-269-6791, @imdanielsalazar