WAVERLY — As recently as January, the City of Waverly hoped to move forward on a new building that would jointly house Waverly Fire and Rescue and the city’s municipal offices. That plan now appears to be on hold — for several reasons.
After discussions with Waverly firefighters indicating the department’s dissatisfaction with the building’s design and dual-purpose configuration, council members are now leaning toward removing the building’s city office component altogether and filling out the remaining space with further fire department facilities.
“I know we’ve got to do something with the city office building as well, but I don’t like the two together,” Council Member Abbey Pascoe said at the Feb. 14 Waverly City Council meeting.
But the question remains — with the city offices removed, who will pay for the building? Determining who would bear financial responsibility hinges on a proposal from the Waverly Rural Fire Protection District.
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At the Jan. 10 council meeting, Mayor Bill Gerdes announced the rural fire district board’s intention to merge with Waverly Fire and Rescue to create a suburban fire district, which would transfer the city’s and rural fire district’s affiliation with the fire department to a newly created government entity.
If a suburban fire district were formed, that entity could equally tax the residents in Waverly and the residents in the rural district’s 100 square miles of coverage area, which could, in theory, help pay for the new fire station. If the city were to pay for the fire station itself, it would have been Waverly residents footing the bill. Waverly Rural Fire District Board President Dick Dames said that wouldn’t be a fair deal.
“I would not want to make the City of Waverly buy that station, nor would I expect them to make me buy that station for them,” Dames said.
Discussions regarding the formation of a suburban fire district have continued since the January council meeting, and Gerdes said the time is right to consider the suburban fire district configuration.
“The benefits will be that everyone in the suburban fire district will be taxed equally, and the suburban fire district board will oversee the funding and operation,” Gerdes said in an email. “With the present need for a new fire station, now seems like the perfect time to explore this possibility.”
Dames also said the Waverly Rural Fire Protection District Board’s primary reason for pursuing a suburban fire district is the potential of Lincoln eventually annexing Waverly. The rural fire district contracts fire protection services from the City of Waverly.
“So, what if the city of Lincoln ever takes the city of Waverly over?” Dames said. “Then we have no department. This way, Lincoln could take the city of Waverly over and we would still have a department to take care of the rural people, which is (the rural board’s) responsibility.”
Dames and Gerdes have consulted with representatives in districts that have made the change from a rural to suburban fire district, and they paid a visit last month to board members of the Valley Suburban Fire Protection District.
Valley’s fire department converted to a suburban fire district in the early 2000s, according to Board President Amy Carlson, whose family has a long-standing relationship with the fire department. Carlson joined the suburban fire district board in 2015, but her father-in-law was on the rural fire board during the transition to a suburban district.
She said the change was made because of conflicts between the City of Valley and the Valley Rural Fire District as the district’s western Douglas County footprint continued its population growth. The rural board paid for the fire department’s major equipment — fire engines, water pumpers, etc. The city, meanwhile, owned and paid for upkeep on the department’s fire station.
The change to a suburban fire district meant that the city’s budget would no longer contribute payments on fire department expenditures, and the fire department’s budget would be controlled entirely by the suburban fire district board. The City of Valley eventually sold the fire station for a small cost to the suburban fire district, Carlson said.
“The more growth we started to have out here, the more there was a discrepancy in who would pay for what,” Carlson said. “It was all about money and how we could make it right for everyone.”
Since the switch, the suburban fire district — which includes the property within Valley city limits and about 50 square miles surrounding it — has set its own tax levy that taxes all of its residents at an equal rate.
When the fire district has a project it needs to pay for, it can raise its levy while contending with the state’s 2.5% annual levy growth lid. Or, under state law, suburban and rural fire districts can issue bonds and set an additional bond levy without a public vote. Such bond issues only need approval from the fire district’s governing county.
To Carlson, the suburban fire district’s autonomy has been a major benefit.
“The fact that the fire department runs itself and does not have to make decisions and then go ask if they can be funded to complete something is a tremendous help for a fire department,” Carlson said.
For instance, Valley is set to break ground on a new fire station this summer, which will replace the fire department’s facility that has been in use since the 1950s. The new fire station will have 32,000 square feet of space and 13 apparatus bays, according to the fire department’s website.
Carlson said the new fire station will be paid for using a $7 million bond issue with a bond levy of $.08409 per $100 of property valuation. The bond levy will be taxed in addition to the suburban fire district’s standard general fund levy of $.06072.
She said residents have, for the most part, been understanding of the tax increase. She said she received one disapproving phone call after Douglas County citizens received their tax statements.
“Our district knows that the big increase is because we’re building a fire station,” she said.
Bennington’s suburban fire district has also been referred to as a model for Waverly in discussions at Waverly City Council meetings.
Bennington’s coverage area is less than half the size of Waverly’s, at 44 square miles. But the fire district’s population is about 25,000 and includes land seeing significant growth in far northwest Omaha. Bennington Suburban Fire Protection District Board President Ben Tysor said his department received 1,300 calls for service in 2022. When he joined the volunteer fire department in 2002, that number was 197.
“That increase on a volunteer bedroom community department was getting to the point where we were having a hard time covering our calls, recruiting and retaining volunteers, especially during the day when everybody was at work,” Tysor said.
Bennington started considering a move to a suburban fire district configuration in 2019 and finalized the conversion in 2020. The motivation was the opportunity to reset the fire district’s tax levy, which allowed the fire district to generate more funds beyond the state’s 2.5% annual budget growth rate limit. More funding meant Bennington would be able to staff its fire station 24 hours a day with full-time firefighters.
“Converting to a suburban fire district essentially let us reset the lid to a higher tax amount so we could cover the salaries of paid firefighters,” Tysor said.
Before the switch to a suburban fire district, the Bennington rural fire district’s levy was about six cents per $100 of valuation. Now, the suburban fire district’s levy sits at about 11 cents and pays for the district to staff 12 full-time firefighters. Its fire chief and assistant fire chief are also full-time employees.
“We really haven’t heard too many complaints at all as a fire department,” said Bennington Fire Chief Dan Mallory. “Nobody wants to pay more taxes. We understand that. But when people look at the service they’re getting now, that’s what offsets it.”
Mallory said some new residents have told him they moved to the district because of the service the fire department has been able to provide.
“When people realize that we can get to their house in four minutes, that makes a huge difference,” he said.
One difference between Bennington’s configuration and Valley’s configuration is that the City of Bennington still pays a contracted amount to the suburban fire district, whereas Bennington residents are not taxed directly by the suburban fire district. Valley’s suburban fire district oversees Valley and the surrounding rural areas.
Questions have come up at recent Waverly City Council meetings about how the change to a suburban fire district would affect the fire department’s operations. Tysor said the effect on Bennington’s day-to-day operations has been minimal, as the suburban fire board maintains autonomy over the fire department.
A suburban fire district board is formed by a public election, similarly to other local government entities.
Gerdes said he doesn’t expect that the formation of a suburban fire district would negatively impact Waverly Fire and Rescue’s response times or the department’s operations. WFR has hovered around 400 calls for service per year in recent years, with that number likely to rise if several development projects take shape.
“I want this thing to go through,” Dames said. “I think it will be the best thing that happens for us and for everybody, for the community.”
It remains unclear the specific configuration Waverly’s suburban fire district would take. Dames said the details would come closer into view at the rural board’s meeting on March 15, where an attorney was set to be present and available to take questions. Coverage from that meeting will be published in next week’s newspaper.