Avon Lake

City Council will budget about $37,500 for two additional studies of the fire department.

One study will look at the possible regionalization of fire and paramedic services for the Avon Lake department. The other is a performance audit through the state that, in part, will look at a previous study, the Preuer Report, and its recommendation for building new stations.

Ward 3 Councilwoman Jennifer Fenderbosch asked the state auditor’s office to make a presentation to council in late 2009. During that presentation, the chief auditor explained how other Ohio communities requested a performance audit of their cities or specific departments.

Recently, Fenderbosch has asked other council members to make a push for the performance audit of the fire department and especially the Preuer Report, mainly because the consulting firm, John D. Preuer & Associates, is made up of former and retired firefighters. The state auditor’s office is completely separate from any department it would audit, she said.

“When a bank teller audits the bank, I don’t think it’s good business,” she said in an interview.

Other council members appeared receptive to the idea of a performance audit. During a Saturday morning budget meeting, Ward 1 Councilman and Safety Committee Chairman Tim Rush said he didn’t feel comfortable moving forward on large-scale projects without additional information.

“It’s incumbent upon the city, to us frankly, to make sure the money is justified before presenting it to the public,” he said.

The city is looking at the possibility of new fire stations at the request of Fire Chief Bill Morris, Rush said, and part of that process should be to look at all options. The Preuer Report made the recommendation, he said, but there are some issues with the report. The audit may come back and say the same thing as the Preuer Report, he said.

“If we’re going to move forward, we should have as much information as possible,” he said.

Morris asked if the performance would be of all departments or just scrutiny of the fire department because of its overtime. Morris was quick to defend the overtime, based on increased run volume, more housing and firefighter recall.

“Heaven forbid if we don’t have any recall and we have a structure fire and somebody’s trapped,” he said. “It comes down to what level of service do you want to provide. If you want to provide less service, it will cost less money. If you want to provide better service, it’ll cost more money.”

Rush responded the additional study data will be used to inform the project’s future.

The regionalization study is through the West Shore Regional Study. The city received acceptance into the study, according to Councilman at-Large Marty O’Donnell, but it needs to move quickly to be included. The fire department is expected to have more than $2 million in equipment purchases in the next six years, he said, and regionalization may help with that.

“They look at everything from contracts to equipment costs in the future,” he said. “This is a very costly situation. This is an option to look at here.”

Mayor K.C. Zuber, however, was not in favor of the new reports, calling it an “audit of an audit.”

Council needs to understand the fire department is making 66 percent more runs than it did 13 years ago, the last time the department increased its staffing level, Zuber said. If the city doesn’t increase the staffing at the department, the cost will be absorbed by overtime, he said.

“I understand you want to do more studying, but eventually we’re going to have to tackle that issue that’s been put out there,” he said. “We can put it off for another year, and that’s fine. The bottom line is the town is growing.”

Rush disagreed, saying there are more factors at play. While he won’t dispute that squad runs have increased over the years and that plays into overtime, he said there are other areas where management could help control the costs. The union contract also has an impact, from pay raises to work schedules.

“It’s a combination of things,” he said. “You can’t just look at 66 percent and say that’s the cause.”

City Council will include the total cost of the two studies in its final reading of the 2010 budget at its next regular meeting Monday night.

Contact Bryan Wroten at bwroten@2presspapers.com

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